This morning, John Calipari released the final installment of his “Vision of the Program” series in which he outlined his plans for the next ten years (or beyond) at Kentucky. Obviously, the biggest takeaway from the post was Cal’s statement that he wants to retire here, but there were some other gems in there as well, including his vow to improve the game day atmosphere at Rupp Arena.
“One of the first things we want to do is make Rupp Arena the preeminent home-court advantage in basketball,” Cal wrote. “Rupp Arena needs to be about more than just the game. Since I’ve gotten here, little has changed in the game-day atmosphere of that historical gym.”
He’s right. I’ve been to twelve of the fourteen basketball arenas in the SEC and although none of them are as big as Rupp, more often than not, the game day atmosphere is better. Sure, some of that is because big, bad Kentucky’s in the house and SEC basketball, if anything, is about taking down the Cats, but other schools just have us beat when it comes to making what happens before the game, during timeouts, and halftime more entertaining.
With that in mind, here are some suggestions on how to make the game day atmosphere at Rupp better. Obviously, some fixes are easier than others, so I ranked them in order of difficulty.
Easy fixes (No Renovation)
1. All of the “Cams”
How does Rupp Arena still not have a Kiss Cam? It’s such an easy concept. All you need is a cameraman, a cheesy graphic, some funny music, a captive audience, and BAM! You get either a sweet Kodak moment or instant awkwardness. The Kiss Cam is a staple at basketball arenas across the country, and the fact that UK doesn’t have one yet is starting to feel intentional.
While we’re at it, let’s add a Simba Cam and a Shame Cam. The Simba Cam was started by the Atlanta Braves back in 2014 in honor of their shortstop Andrelton Simmons, who goes by the nickname “Simba.” When the music starts—Elton John’s “Circle of Life,” of course—parents hold their babies up like Rafiki held up Simba during “The Lion King,” and the results are hilarious:
Or, even better, the Shame Cam, which I first saw at Ole Miss back in 2013. Fans who didn’t put on their free t-shirts (because of course there was a whiteout with Kentucky in town) were called out by the camera crew and shamed into putting it on. Think of the fun we could have with this in the lower arena!
On that note…
2. More giveaways
Look, I realize Rupp holds around 24,000 people, so doing a giveaway every night doesn’t make the most sense financially; however, there are few things fans love more than free t-shirts, towels, or anything, really. Get a sponsor on board and at least do the lower arena for big games to make the place look better for TV. Or, better yet, give away LED bracelets to fans at the beginning of the season and encourage them to wear them to each game. PixMob makes some that are programmed to light up in sync with music throughout the game. The Nashville Predators did this at a playoff game I attended a few weeks ago and the effect was really cool:
3. More videos featuring players
The biggest improvement to the game day atmosphere since Calipari took over has been the work by the KyWildcatsTV crew. Week in and week out, they come up with stunning, original intros that get the Rupp crowd out of its seats and ready for the game. (They’re so good at it they won a national award last week.) So, let’s capitalize on their creativity by making even more videos, especially ones that feature players. Have the players lead the crowd in the “Blue/White” or CATS chant. Let fans get to know them with a “Know Your Player” feature or Q&A segment. A common complaint of the one-and-done era is that fans don’t get to know players very well before they’re gone, so this could be an easy way to connect players to fans and keep them entertained during timeouts.
4. Use the heck out of the new scoreboard
We know we’re getting a new center-hung scoreboard, and, knowing Cal, it’s probably one of the best ones out there, so let’s use the heck out of it. Put a noise meter up and challenge the crowd to get loud; encourage fans to tweet pics using a #RuppArena hashtag; heck, put a camera on Ryan Lemond’s head and let him run around, let’s just make it as interactive as possible.
5. Radio headsets
Both Matt and Tom Leach have mentioned this idea before, but why not let fans rent or buy a headset to listen to the radio broadcast? My mother takes her radio to each game to listen to Tom, Mike Pratt, and Matt despite the five-second delay, which, if you’re streaming it via iHeartRadio on your phone, is even worse. Several SEC schools, such as Alabama and Auburn, partner with LiveSportsRadio to rent headsets to fans that don’t have any delay:
Worthwhile investments (Minor Renovation)
6. Bench backs in upper arena
Between the steep pitch and crammed-in benches, the upper arena at Rupp is not a comfortable place to watch a game. I doubt individual chair backs will happen outside of a major renovation, but is it possible to install bench backs? The rows are so narrow it might not be, but that would be a major improvement for those who make the hike up high.
7. Enhanced VIP “K-Fund” area
If you aren’t a K-Fund member, you may not know this, but there is a hospitality room underneath the lower arena for donors to hang out before the game and during halftime. Right now, it’s nothing very fancy, just a big room with tables and TVs set up, but if money is set aside for a minor renovation, an enhanced K-Fund area would make the donors happy and create a cool VIP experience for fans. The Nashville Predators have the Lexus Lounge, a mega private club with catered food, drink, and an area for fans to greet the team before they head on the court. If something similar existed at Rupp, I think plenty of fans would be willing to donate more to the K-Fund to partake.
8. More displays in the concourses
The concourses at Rupp have gone through some minor face lifts over the years, but it would be nice to have some displays to show off the program’s history. Texas A&M’s Reed Arena had a few video displays that showed highlights, big moments, etc. that were really cool, and the cost could be offset with advertisements.
For the long haul (Major Renovation)
9. Create a suite level
All of the above suggestions are minor, but if UK is serious about making Rupp better, they have to redo the seating. This is, of course, a HUGE undertaking that would require millions of dollars and potentially several years, but if the plan is to stay in Rupp, it has to happen. The first priority should be moving the older fans out of the lower arena and expanding the student section. The only way to do this would be making a suite level nice enough that the rich fans would actually prefer to be up there. I mentioned this in my “Behind Enemy Lines” feature on Thompson-Boling Arena back in February, but Tennessee did something very similar in 2007, taking out one side of the upper arena to put in a suite and loge level:
You can read my feature on Thompson-Boling for more details, but the renovation took seven months and cost around $20 million. For comparison’s sake, the current technology renovation at Rupp (new ribbon boards, scoreboard) cost $15 million.
10. Put a student section all around the court
Once the older, richer fans are up, up and away, take out the first five to ten rows around the court and make it standing room only for students, which might require elevating the court a few feet to maintain sight lines for people in higher rows.
…Or not. An elevated court at Rupp might cause more ruckus than moving wealthier fans to the suites. But getting students around the court is paramount to a louder, rowdier Rupp.
Okay, your turn. Let’s hear your suggestions on how to make Rupp a fitting home for the best program in college basketball.