LEXINGTON, Ky. — Kentucky basketball sent notices to its season-ticket holders Friday announcing major changes coming to the game day experience at Rupp Arena: By the 2020-21 season, the facility will have four new club spaces, about 3,000 fewer seats and chair backs for upper-level sideline seats.
The renovations were negotiated into the university’s new lease with the Lexington Center Corporation that runs through 2033. They could cost up to $15 million. Replacing bleachers with actual chairs from section 211 to 217 and from 228 to 234 will reduce the capacity of the arena to about 20,500.
That would drop the historic building to sixth on the list of college basketball’s biggest cathedrals — but not necessarily take Kentucky out of the running for its annual attendance crown. The Wildcats have led the nation in attendance 20 times in the last 23 years. Second-place Syracuse averaged 21,462 last season.
The bigger worry for Big Blue Nation in this renovation, though, will be the resulting reshuffle of upper-level seating. Athletic department officials briefed SEC Country and other local reporters Thursday on the details of the project and how changes will affect fans. Lower-level seating will be unaffected, but the entire upper level will be reseated.
It is also possible upper-level student seating, which was often not full last season, will be reduced. Leading the nation in total attendance, one Kentucky official said Thursday, was less important to athletic department leaders than creating a better experience for the program’s fans.
The school’s first priority will be season-ticket holders — around 17,000 of them — and they plan to help fans continue sitting near friends and family they’ve been around at games for years. Athletic department officials learned a great deal, good and bad, from the reseating process after renovations at Commonwealth Stadium.
Construction on the chair back seating will not begin until after the 2018-19 season, but construction on the premium clubs, which are being built off the back of Rupp Arena and will affect parking in that area, is scheduled to start in July.
Two clubs available to the public and one for university use will be completed by the 2019-20 season and a third public club will be finished by the 2020-21 season. All told, those spaces are expected to accommodate 3,000 to 4,000 people. The clubs will not be tied to seats, but fans will be able to purchase access to them — with K-Fund donation level determining priority.
Kentucky hopes to release renderings of the clubs around Big Blue Madness festivities in October, but for a general idea of those spaces, think the Woodford Reserve Club at Commonwealth Stadium.
Oh, and yes, you can purchase and consume alcohol in the clubs. Packages would include some food and non-alcoholic beverages with the option to buy adult libations. It is not yet clear whether club passes will be sold on a season or game-by-game basis, or both.
Athletics officials said there might be some additional revenue to be made on those limited alcohol sales, but like the rest of the upgrades, the greater purpose was to create an atmosphere that is more enticing for fans to leave their couches and big-screen TVs to actually attend games with more of the comforts they find at home.
“Rupp Arena has long been hallowed ground, home to the greatest tradition in college basketball and the best fans in the world,” athletic director Mitch Barnhart said in a news release Friday. “We are in the midst of an effort to make one of the most special venues in all of sports even better with chair-back seating in the upper level and new club areas, answering feedback we have heard often from our fans. We are excited share preliminary details about these upgrades and look forward to providing more information as we move forward.”
Details and updates on the projects will be available at UKAthletics.com/RuppRenovation.