On Saturday night, the University of Kentucky men’s basketball team hosted Vanderbilt. The Wildcats won an ugly game 56-47, but that wasn’t the only thing the Big Blue Nation was talking about. To celebrate the 100th anniversary of the hard hat, the Bullard company gave away a few thousand Blue hard hats with a white interlocking “UK” logo emblazoned across the front. The Guiness Book of World Records folks were on hand as there was a successful attempt to capture the most people wearing a hard hat in one place record. A noble if somewhat confusing effort resulted in a backlash that anyone could have easily predicted, for the hard hats were only available to those ticketholders in the lower level of Rupp Arena.
Much has been made about the crowd at Rupp Arena. While there’s not a better arena or atmosphere for a big time game, the majority of the time, the Rupp crowd is pretty pedestrian and mundane… in the lower level. I’ve often said that the upper level, bleacher folks are rowdy from the time they enter until the time they file out. On social media, on radio shows and around the water cooler, many folks in the BBN have often-maligned the “blue hairs” in the lower level for sitting on their hands and not cheering or even actively not watching the basketball game in front of them.
Obviously, the lower level seats are more expensive that the upper level seats. That should go without saying. The problem that UK and Athletic Director Mitch Barnhart have is the perception that when it comes to UK fans, money talks. Fans see it with the way Kroger Field was reconfigured with many Average Joe fans losing their longtime seats and/or parking to make way for the bigger donors in the K Fund. Many fans have felt left out in the cold as it seems that the haves get more and more and the have nots get less and less.
To be fair, this isn’t just a problem for the University of Kentucky. Just about every collegiate and professional team is dealing with these issues. While teams want to woo the fans with more disposable income, the average fan is being priced out. Across all sports, at the college and the pro level, attendance is down. It’s just easier to stay at home than to pay money for a less tha optimal experience. And when there are giveaways that only seem to be available for those that are already in at the top of the food chain, it creates animosity within the fan base.
For some in the Big Blue Nation, Mitch Barnhart can’t be right. Every bad decision made by the athletics department is his alone and every good one… I guess just appears out of the ether. I’m no Barnhart apologist, but I think it’s a bit unfair to lay every slight that’s committed by Kentucky as school/team/athletic department at his feet. Does anyone really know, beyond a shadow of a doubt that he’s responsible for the checkerboard pattern or that he’s solely the person responsible for uprooting longtime season ticket holders from their seats? I know the buck stops at the top, but I just don’t know if that is an accurate representation of what goes on behind the scenes.
My current understanding is that Bullard made the decision on how to put the hard hats out at Rupp Arena. Obviously, it was for publicity and having all of the hats in the lower level, instead of dispersed throughout the crowd on a first come, first serve basis would have made the Guiness Records folks job more difficult. Short of providing 23,000 hard hats, there was no way to make everyone happy. Rightly or wrongly, however, the optics were bad and understandably rubbed a lot of faithful Kentucky fans the wrong way.
The reality is that teams and athletic departments have to cater to the big money folks. One of the reasons that UK is one of the few profitable collegiate athletic departments in the country. The trick that Barnhart and is staff have to do is find away to take care of the lower and upper levels of fans. At the end of the day, we all bleed Blue.