When John Calipari was named head coach of the Kentucky men’s basketball team on April 1, 2009, the excitement was immediately felt throughout Lexington. New t-shirts boasting the phrase ‘Envy our past – fear our future’ sold across the city like crazy. It was the beginning of a new era.
From his first game in Rupp Arena, it was clear that the atmosphere was different. After a few rocky seasons under coach Billy Gillispie, the Big Blue Nation was ready for a change. There was an electric feeling that radiated throughout the arena that hadn’t been felt in a while. The fans screamed and clapped until their faces were blue and hands were red. The student section chanted and jumped without cease – no matter the opponent or score.
Now, things are a bit different. While it is understandable for excitement to be heightened in a coach’s first season, it seems that over the years the atmosphere has dwindled. There are exceptions, of course. When the top ranked Tennessee Volunteers came to Rupp on February 16, that buzz of Cal’s earlier years could be felt. The student section was packed to the brim, filled with signs, chanting and unmatched energy.
For the most part, though, many people feel the energy in Rupp Arena is not the same as it was at the beginning of the Calipari era. So, why? What is the difference between now and then?
While this year’s team struggled out of the gate, they bounced back nicely, losing only two of their last 18 regular season games and falling only one game short of the Final Four. However, the upper-level of the student section was rarely full.
While there are several theories regarding the apparent fizzle of student section spirit, one of the most popular is the rise in ticket price.
“I think the problem is that students are less likely to go unless it’s a big game because tickets are more expensive now,” UK sophomore Olivia Antigua says.
Before the 2017-2018 season, UK doubled student ticket prices from $5 to $10, marking the first change in student ticket prices since the 1990s, according to the Lexington Herald Leader.
Resale tickets often cost more, sometimes nearing into the hundreds. UK freshman Noah Irwin says he paid $85 for his student ticket to Kentucky’s matchup with conference rival Tennessee, and that he had to arrive nearly six hours before tip-off to get a lower-level seat. While some fans are willing to put up the cash and time, the reality is that the majority of students are not, which helps to explain the decline in student section numbers.
Others blame different factors, like long wait times and even high expectations. For higher-stake games, students might have to arrive anywhere from three to five hours early to get a good seat in the reserved section. Considering the majority of basketball season falls in the winter months, this certainly doesn’t seem ideal.
While it wouldn’t be easy, there are several proposed solutions to the problem. First and most simple is to lower student ticket costs. Duke, another college basketball powerhouse, does not charge students for men’s basketball tickets. Their student section, dubbed the ‘Cameron Crazies,’ is one of the loudest, most passionate in the country, spanning a whole side line as opposed to UK’s smaller section.
Size of the section is also considered to be a problem by some. When USA Today Sports ranked the “eRUPPtion zone” as No. 7 on a list of the eight-best student sections in college basketball in 2016, they blamed reductions in Rupp’s noise level on a cut in student section size in 2015. The coming $241 million renovations to the arena are also expected to downsize supper-level student seating, but UK says lower-level reserved student tickets and the “eRUPPtion zone” won’t be changed.
It is unlikely, however, that the University would ever add lower-level student seating, considering how much money is generated from season ticket holders. Last week, the Wildcats were named the most valuable team in college basketball for the third year in a row, according to a study from an IUPU-Columbus professor. Much of this economic success is from season ticket holders and pledges from wealthy donors.
While it’s impossible to say for sure, perhaps Coach Cal’s incoming recruiting class full of stars could ignite some excitement back into Rupp’s atmosphere and bring more students from State Street to the student section.