UK abandons arena renovation plan when it realizes it might have to pay for it

For more than two years now, Lexington, Kentucky has been working on a $350 million renovation of the University of Kentucky’s Rupp Arena, because the university’s basketball team said it needed new luxury seating and concession stands and bells and whistles and cupholders and whatever. Anyway, the whole plan is off, because the university says it doesn’t want any of those things now:

In meetings with Gov. Steve Beshear and [Lexington Mayor Jim] Gray over the past two weeks, university officials said they no longer were interested in those amenities. The university had agreed in principle to contribute $10.7 million annually to the project for the next 30 years. That agreement, according to letters between university and city officials, was agreed to in October.

“We designed this arena based on what UK said they needed,” Gray said. “But I understand timing and pacing are everything, especially with major projects like this. So we’ll adjust and adapt.”

What changed the university’s mind? Reading between the lines of a May 20 letter to the Lexington Convention Center from university president Eli Capilouto, it’s that “there is not sufficient public support” for the project’s funding plan. Specifically, public support from the Kentucky legislature, which Capilouto was concerned might cut off funding for new academic buildings if it had to contribute $80 million toward the arena project. Capilouto also worried about a piece of the funding plan that would raise money by selling “Team Rupp” memberships to the public for $300 each, which would earn buyers absolutely nothing, and which for some reason weren’t proving very popular.

That said, the mayor still wants to renovate Rupp Arena, the governor still wants to renovation Rupp Arena, and you can bet the university still wants to renovate Rupp Arena, so long as they’re not stuck paying most of the load. But it is a case where a sports team asked for a pile of renovation money, legislators said no, and the team backed down, so we know that can work — though admittedly, the University of Kentucky wasn’t going to threaten to move to Seattle.

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3 comments on “UK abandons arena renovation plan when it realizes it might have to pay for it

  1. Schools like Kentucky have something even more powerful than a threat to move to another city: they can claim they’re losing recruits, and by extension, games, due to inferior facilities. Tommy Tuberville was able to get most of the Confederate flags out of the stands at Ole Miss by saying it hurt recruiting. Bear Bryant was able to integrate the University of Alabama football team by saying black recruits going to other schools was costing the university wins. If UK starts racking up losses, even if due to poor coaching or a changing competitive landscape, you can bet they’ll use the lack of public funds for renovations as the reason. And they’ll probably get all the money they desire in such a situation.

  2. I wonder if it could have something to do with the ongoing O’Bannon (former college athlete)versus NCAA trial in its second week in Oakland. NCAA Emmert is supposed to be testifying today. So far, there has been a lot of presentation on the dollars spent on coaches and facilities, so why not athletes. Maybe some are starting to see the writing on the wall about the futre of big time college sports.

  3. A Team Rupp membership for 300 bucks? Don’t they even throw in a “kick me” tee shirt?

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