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Can Kentucky Wildcat fans REALLY leave Rupp Arena behind?


New stadiums are all the rage in sports.  They always have been.  Every organization is looking for the biggest, newest arena/stadium with the most amenities.  Even Kentucky’s hallowed Rupp Arena is at the forefront of this new stadium craze as the Kentucky brass have been taking exploratory “field trips” to study to feasibility of rebuilding or replacing Rupp Arena.

And don’t get me wrong.  New arenas are nice.  They create a lot of buzz and in some cases pump a lot of money into the economy, whether it be from the construction costs of building the stadium or from all the new businesses that usually pop up around a new arena.  Big time sports is always “out with the old and in with the new” when it comes to facilities, but would Kentucky fans really be so eager to discard Rupp Arena?

ESPN’s Eamonn Brennan recently did an article about the Rupp Arena situation and he raised an interesting question and to be honest, it makes for a good debate.  I know that everyone wants to keep up with Louisville and build a stadium better than the Yum! but is it really worth forsaking 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?"

I have to admit, I like the “Fenway Park” approach.  Keep Rupp Arena the way it is and jazz it up.  The Yum! Center is nice, but is it really that different from all the super new arenas popping up now?  A good comparison is the arena situation in Orlando.

The Orlando Arena was opened in Orlando in 1989 and became the home of the Orlando Magic.  At the time the “O-rena” was built, the trend was to put skyboxes at the top of the arena with a birds eye view of the action.  So the O-rena with it high boxes was built and the Magic played their very first games in the building. In the franchise’s short history, there was quite a bit of history that took place in the building as ping pong balls landed Shaquille O’Neal and Penny Hardaway in Orlando in consecutive years and the Magic made it to the NBA Finals.  Probably about 10 years into the O-rena’s run, all these new stadiums came out with the luxury boxes situated lower and there were more of them, meaning more revenue.  And the grumbling came that the O-rena was horribly outdated.  Plans started for a new Arena, but before the Magic left, they graced the old building with another NBA Finals appearance.

Let’s cut to 2010 when the new and improved Amway Center opened, just over a mile away from where Orlando Arena stands, now empty and forgotten.  It it is a nice arena. It is a very nice arena, to be honest and it has all of the amenities that fans could possible want.  But in reality, it is not that incredibly different from all the new arenas that are opening now.  But in a poll of NBA Arenas, it rates as the fifth best arena.  So in all reality, it appears that the new arena is just following the trend of whatever is hot in the arena venues and not really standing out from the crowd.

And the Orlando Arena, with all it’s history ranging from the birth of a franchise to Shaq and Penny to two NBA Finals stands empty.  NBA trivia fans will remember that Orlando Arena is where Michael Jordan wore number #45 in a NBA playoff game because someone stole his #23 jersey.  There was an all star game with Magic Johnson held at this venue as 20 years of NBA legends, past and future played on it’s floor.  But that all sits boxed up, slated for demolition by the end of the year.

How does this relate to Lexington?  Let’s say that there is a new stadium built for the Wildcats.  What happens to the “old” Rupp Arena?  Unlike in Orlando, it can’t be imploded and a new park or business district be built over it.  The old Rupp Arena will stand, mostly empty as the ghosts of three national championship teams echo within.   Unlike Memorial Coliseum, I doubt it will find a primary tenant.  Memorial is fortunate enough to be on campus and is still in use by UK Hoops and other UK teams.  I would assume that whatever concerts that come to Lexington would also abandon Rupp for the newer, slicker arena.   Oh, I know that you can slap the name “Rupp Arena” on the new building but it will never be Rupp.

In the 1970’s, the trend in major league baseball was to build these ugly, concrete, circular stadiums with artificial turf and Cincinnati, and Pittsburgh, and St. Louis all jumped on that trend.  And about 30 years later, the Great American Ballpark, PNC Park, and the “new” Busch Stadium all popped up to replace that.  Gone were the fields that the Big Red Machine and Willie Stargell and the “We are Family” Pirates played on and they were replaced with the newest trend in baseball stadiums.

Meanwhile Fenway Park and Wrigley Field still stand unfazed.  There has been cosmetic work done to give the stadiums modern touches, but the legacy of the parks stand intact.  And the fans there would have it no other way.  It’s now the thing t
o travel to Chicago and Fenway to take in a game in the historic parks.  Could a renovated Rupp Arena be the same type of mecca for college basketball fans?

Let’s hope that whatever happens with the arena committee, due diligence is given to support the tradition and history of Rupp Arena and that all feasible attempts are made to protect it’s legacy.

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