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Rupp Arena: Intimidating or Not?

What is the most divisive issue amongst UK fans at this time? Sure, some of you will take the “easy” way out and say it is our continued intellectual debate on our Coach Tubby Smith. But I dont think that is the true great debate of our time. No, the issue that virtually always elicits passionate responses in circles I circumnavigate is the question of whether Rupp Arena is a good basketball environment. Likely no issue divides Cats’ fans more thoroughly than this question and the age demographic is usually clear. Young people and those that sit in the top levels or dont have seats at all believe Rupp generally sucks. Old rich people in blue cardigans and others who dont like loud noises, think it is great. There is usually no in-between. After much internal debate, I have concluded that those wearing “Bedazzled” sweaters are dead wrong.

Let me initially be clear. When Rupp is rocking for a big game, there may be no better place to watch basketball in America. Kentucky fans are among the most knowledgable in the game, and their passion for basketball is simply unmatched across this country. When Rupp is stoked (think LSU in 90, Maryland with Steve Francis, Pitino’s first visit, Florida when they were #1), you literally cannot hear yourself think and the rumbling of such a large crowd can shake the rafters. Plus, there is a history to the place. As Bruce Pearl noted last week, when you walk into Rupp, it just feels different. There are so many great names in the rafters, the legacy of great teams haunts the air and the room has a buzz that is rare in any sporting venue in America. Rupp Arena on a good night is college basketball…..and on these nights, it can be magical.

But then there are the other nights, and on those nights, UK’s homecourt advantage continues to shrink. For your average game, Rupp can be like a tomb. The people sitting closest to the court arrive late, leave early (hate to catch the traffic) and are usually there for the social scene more than the game. The students are stuck behind the goal, sometimes not even filling up their section, and while some passionate kids are trying to get people going…..many are text messaging and waiting for the big frat party after the game. Often the cheers are polite and the applause is scattered and the stands are filled with people with the attitude that they are there to be entertained, not to be part of the action….and thus the atmosphere suffers.

Why is this? Well there are a number of factors that contribute to the current Rupp malaise.

(1). The lower arena is filled with people who have no interest in being loud fans. This has been a problem for years and will likely never change. The lower arena is filled with more grey than Tom and because most of the seats are given based on wealth and length of participation, the arena is filled with those more interested in the stock market and the newest wines available downtown than making Joakim Noah sweat. Whereas other arenas have found ways to surround the lower seats with rabid students, UK still has it filled with donors…..atmosphere is thus lost.

(2) The student section leaves a great deal to be desired. For many years, the UK student section was one of the best in the nation. Students lined up, camped out and waited for an eternity to get in the gym and make their voice heard. But then came a lottery and a new, easier system to get student tickets….the end result being that the fanatics were not rewarded, and the more casual student fan got into the game. Thus the fans the arena needs the most…..the chest-painted, voice-losing, website-visiting students are often shut out….and the sorority girl going to scout out her future rich husband is let in. Atmosphere lost.

(3) UK has done little to promote the atmosphere in the building. Whereas other schools pump music into the arena during breaks (such as “Jump Around” or those haunting techno beats) to get people on their feet, UK uses the same mediocre band to bore the crowd to tears at every timeout. Plus UK uses the breaks as a chance to bring Lee Todd, Joe B Hall and other “luminaries” out to be honored, thus deflating all involved and beginning the game again with a yawn. When complaining about this to a sportswriter recently, I was told, “the fans dont need music to get loud….they need some people to make some shots.” Maybe so, but a loud atmosphere and a rabid crowd helps make the game easier and can lead to more made shots. UK has shown no interest (beyond the opening montage to music which I think is great) in contributing to energy in the crowd…..and thus the crowd often has less than stellar energy.

All of these factors, couple with a sometimes spoiled Rupp Arena fan section, leads to an atmosphere that all too often, isnt worthy of the program it represents. I have been fortunate to go to all the major college sporting arenas in America besides UCLA. And with the exception of UNC (which is often the worst….although has gotten slightly better), UK’s is often the most dead. Whether it be the screaming dorks at Duke, the haunting “Rock Chalk Jayhawk” chant at Kansas, the Rowdy Reptiles at Florida or even lesser known arenas like Virginia, Wake Forest, Michigan State or Illinois, Rupp simply doesnt compete. Heck when I went to see the Bradley game a few weeks ago, the arena was ten times louder than that of an average game at Rupp…and that simply shouldnt happen.

The UK fanbase is the most rabid in America….period. Likely no other belief (besides my Appalachian populism) has led to more arguments in my life than defending that one. However Rupp Arena’s atmosphere is not worthy of the program it represents. The UK fanbase shows its true colors at the SEC Tournament, the NCAA and other road events where the true fans come out in droves. Yet Rupp is often dead. Something should be done to fix that. I am open to any and all suggestions, but for UK to get the homecourt advantage it deserves/needs, something needs to be done……before the blue hairs ruin the world!

And to remind you about a loud Rupp, try the Florida game in 2003:

Article written by Matt Jones