College Basketball Nation: Rupp Arena

Rupp Arena, home of one of college basketball's most storied programs, is going to change. This much is inevitable. On Wednesday, Lexington, Ky., city officials and Kentucky Governor Steve Beshear will address the public at a news conference, where they are expected to announce plans to do ... well, something. This is not a new development, generally speaking. City and state officials have been openly debating how best to update (or completely replace) Rupp for at least two years.

Any public works project that means as much to a state as the home of the Wildcats do to Kentucky is sure to cause no small amount of tussling between primary stakeholders. But one thing seems certain: For all its charms -- and maybe it's all the concrete, but when that building gets loud, look out -- Rupp has long since grown outdated, even drab, particularly in comparison with rival Louisville's glimmering Yum! Center. One way or another, Rupp Arena is going to change. Most Kentucky fans seem to be on board.

Save one. This week, the Lexington Herald-Leader's Jerry Tipton found at least one dyed-in-the-wool member of Big Blue Nation who is so outraged by the possible changes to Rupp Arena -- especially the potential creation of high-end luxury and loge boxes -- she is threatening to renounce her royal blue roots entirely. Jeanette Hislope means business, y'all:
"I sat here and cried," she said [referring to an online poll about luxury boxes in Rupp Arena]. A self-described "good old girl from Somerset," Hislope spoke of a UK fan base united behind its team. Rich and not-so rich. Black and white. Men and women. Boys and girls.

"It's like we're all in this together and we're all one big family," she said. "That's what I like. To me, it's all about being part of that crowd, and somebody you don't know yelling in your ear and high-fiving you when we make a three-pointer." [...]

"I always bleed blue," she said before adding, "I think this will make me opt out of the Big Blue Nation if they mess with Rupp Arena." [...] "Very few things are deal-breakers. That's one. I would never say a word against the Big Blue Nation. But I'd be done. That will ruin what I consider the heart and soul of Rupp Arena."

So, a few reactions here:

1. For better and for worse, this is why Kentucky's fans are great. Wildcats basketball is not a part of the culture; for many, it is the culture. That any one fan would be so impassioned about the possibility of adding what most sports fans consider part of the bargain these days is testament enough. Viewed through that lens, it's actually kind of cool.

2. I don't know Ms. Hislope, and I'm sure her word is bond ... but I find it hard to believe anyone this passionate about UK basketball could stop carrying her Big Blue Nation card due to a change in seating arrangements.

3. Sports would be perfect, if only the world were perfect, too.

In a perfect world, Kentucky could renovate its aging arena with enthusiastic participation from various government agencies, university authorities and boosters, and local chambers of commerce. All would agree wholeheartedly that the arena renovations should be budgeted for a bajillion dollars. Every fan would receive free mint chocolate chip ice cream for life, maybe. Just spit-balling here. The important thing is that nothing about Rupp Arena would change, at least not perceptibly; everything would just somehow be ... better. At the very least, there would be no need to exact profit-maximizing principles on Kentucky's various demographic tiers. For two hours a couple times a week, everyone would just be equal.

I wish this world existed. I wish collegiate sports weren't beholden to the same economic forces that beguile us in every other facet of life. I wish the theories Tipton refers to from Harvard professor Michael Sandel's What Money Can't Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets helped UK appease all parties in its search to finance a new arena deal. I wish college and pro sports arenas weren't typically the result of completely cynical ploys designed to allow billionaires to avoid paying for their own ego cathedrals, in favor of vague threats aimed at cash-strapped taxpayers. I wish everything that surrounded the games was as pure as the games themselves, as pure as the bonds we form within them.

Alas, this is not the world we live in. If the City of Lexington and the State of Kentucky have to build and bill luxury boxes to help finance the cost of Rupp Arena renovations -- or even if they agree to say that's what they have to do, even if it isn't necessarily the case -- that is what will happen. Sports are the loci of our collective emotion; we think they should exist apart. They don't. Without luxury boxes, tickets closer to the floor cost more than tickets in the nosebleeds; with them, wealthy folks will have another place to spend $15 on 12 ounces of Bud Light.

This is our world, our society, our culture, our way of life. Our beloved games must exist within it. Of course they do. We don't even get free ice cream.
Rupp Arena is a legendary basketball venue. It has housed some of the best teams in college hoops history. Blue-clad fans pack the place every night, even if they're only there to take in a halfhearted exhibition game between a foreign national team and a handful of former Kentucky stars.

But Rupp, like any good storied arena, is getting to the point where its age is outshining its charms. The building is old and drab and lacks many of the modern conveniences baked in to the gleaming new arenas we've seen pop up in NBA cities and college towns in the past 10 years. The obvious example is Louisville's Yum! Center Arena, which provides a beautiful year-round venue for Louisville residents and a top-notch hoops facility in the heart of the city's entertainment district. Kentucky is not the kind of program that wants to lack anything, let alone the facilities required to keep up with the basketball Joneses. (Not to be confused with The Basketball Jones, still the best NBA 'cast on the planet.) But could Kentucky really move out of Rupp?

Kentucky athletic director Mitch Barnhart is currently trying to find an answer to that question. On Tuesday, Barnhart and Lexington mayor Jim Gray sat down for a local news conference to discuss UK's possible arena options going forward. From the Lexington Herald-Leader:
Gray noted that the process of exploring options is a long way from the finish line. "We're at Step One or Two," he said. "This is a project that will have 10 steps."

Barnhart said UK would be "open-minded" to either renovating Rupp or building a new arena. "My job is to protect University of Kentucky basketball and make sure it has what it needs to be the flagship of college basketball," he said. "... We think about the next 30, 40, 50 years of Kentucky basketball, and how we can be partners with the city in what the mayor's trying to get done."

There are a variety of options available. Barnhart and Gray were impressed with Columbus, Ohio's model, which included building a 75-acre arena district that surrounded Nationwide Arena with privately and publicly financed investments in surrounding amenities -- bars, restaurants and the like. That could require the construction of an entirely new building in Lexington and a permanent move out of Rupp Arena.

Another option is to renovate Rupp from the inside-out, adding new updates -- Barnhart cited fan amenities like "electronics" and updated concession stands -- without totally abandoning the Wildcats' traditional home. One local businessman, who cited the bad economy as a reason to avoid a costly excursion into new construction, said Rupp Arena should become college basketball's Fenway Park, referring to the updates Red Sox ownership have made at the classic stadium that has preserved its charm while increasing its modern palatability (not to mention profitability).

Stadium debates can be fascinating for what they say about our economic times and the importance of sports in the public consciousness. But they're especially interesting because of the emotions they inspire in the fan bases affected. Will Kentucky fans really be OK with leaving Rupp Arena? Or are the ties just too deep?
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  • Education secretary Arne Duncan, whose first name always looks weird to me when I type it -- not that I type "Arne Duncan" all that often, but still -- is hitting college basketball where it hurts: Graduation rates. This might be worthy of a longer discussion later, but Duncan's idea is to tie graduation rates to NCAA tournament admission; if you're not graduating players, you can't play in the postseason: "You had four teams that didn't graduate any African-American players. Zero. If that was my son, I don't know if I would want him playing there," Duncan said. "And why did we allow them to play in this tournament, make all this money, be on national TV, and they're not graduating any kids?" Oooh, I know! (Furiously raises hand.) Because no one actually thinks college basketball is an academic enterprise? That only the most naive college basketball viewers argue that college basketball is great because they're watching student-athletes? That, for better or worse (definitely worse), no one really cares? Is that why?
  • I have no idea who to believe in this mess, because no one -- neither Mike Garrett nor Tim Floyd -- seems particularly trustworthy.
  • Speaking of USC, women's coach Michael Cooper (yes, the Showtime Lakers Michael Cooper) issued an apology for opening a news conference with, "My opening statement is [expletive] UCLA." Hilarious! Also kind of mean, and definitely the sort of thing you have to apologize for if you plan on being a head coach at any program for very long. But still, Michael Cooper, well done. Big round of applause. You, sir, are 90 percent onions.
  • Saturday's Cornell-Columbia game at Columbia's Levien Gymnasium is sold out. Yes, a sold out Ivy League basketball game at CUNY. What? It's not like there's anything better to do in New York.
  • UCLA still believes it can improve. This is where a smart aleck like me says that at 7-10, there's no way UCLA can get worse, and so promising improvement is a little like me promising that I'll get better at blogging today: When you're this bad, there's nowhere to go but up.
  • Royce White returns! After retiring from basketball, the Minnesota forward has returned to Tubby Smith's squad at long last. White's legal issues still need to be resolved -- White plead guilty to disorderly conduct and theft for his role in a mall altercation last year, and he's still a focus of an investigation involving a stolen laptop -- but if Smith allows him, White could return to the floor soon.
  • New Orleans quit the Sun Belt, which brings the school one step closer to settling in at the Division III level. When asked for comment, one New Orleans fan screamed "Uh, OK? GO SAINNNNNTSSSSSAHHH!"
  • I like college basketball. I like ridiculous haircuts. You can find me wherever the 'twain shall meet.
  • Casual Hoya breaks down and aggregates Georgetown's huge win over Pitt last night.
  • From the ESPN file, check out Dana O'Neil's excellent look at the surprising Binghamton Bearcats, who suffered one of the worst offseasons of all-time and are somehow not only not winless, but downright competitive. Keep in mind this is a team that had to have open tryouts on campus to fill the 2009-10 squad. It's shocking, really. And speaking of Dana, IU blog Inside The Hall sat her down for a Q & A on her gig, the Hoosiers, and her current All-American picks.
  • A Sea Of Blue takes a look at Kentucky's average margin of victory in 2009-10 and compares it to years' past. Despite the occasional Wildcat letdown and Kentucky's willingness to allow inferior teams to stick around -- think Georgia at Rupp Arena, for example -- the Cats' average margin of victory compares well with the more successful of former coach Rick Pitino's teams.
  • Finally, one quick note on this nonsense: Saying regular-season games don't matter is like saying any given week of the NFL doesn't matter. By itself, no. It's just one-sixteenth, or in college basketball's case, one-thirty-second of a season. The marginal value is low. But the games matter in the aggregate. Which team wins the NCAA title has as much to do with seeding and chance as talent, and every game on the way to the tournament has tiny little reverberations and consequences for March's massive payoff. You know, just like any other sport. Decrying college basketball's regular season as nothing but entertaining TV filler seems more than a little off-base.
On Saturday, Louisville will take on Kentucky at Rupp Arena. This is a big deal in college basketball, but whatever notice the larger world takes (and judging by the reserved media contingent, that notice is significant) pales in comparison to the insane focus folks in Kentucky are paying the game. Things are going to get crazy.

Correction: Things are already getting crazy. Take, for example, this bit of televised -- yes, this was on the local TV news in Louisville -- rivalry action. A Kentucky fan carved a UK in the newly poured concrete at the site of Louisville's new arena. Photos are here. And more than anything, it gives us non-Bluegrass Staters a reminder of just how serious things are going to get Saturday. On both sides of the aisle.

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