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The Long and Tortured History of the Rupp Arena Project


The only definite thing about the Rupp Arena project right now is that it’s a disaster. As we continue to wind down from Eli Capilouto’s scathing letter to Brent Rice, let’s take a minute to look back at the history of the debate over Rupp, which goes all the way back to Rick Pitino’s days at Camelot. To the timeline!

1996: Rick Pitino lobbies for a new on-campus arena, at which time the city of Lexington proposes a $45 million overhaul of Rupp and the convention center and requests $30 million in state assistance.

2001-2004: The Lexington Center Corporation (LCC) renovates Rupp Arena and the convention center at the cost of $52 million, including installing all blue seating in the lower arena. UK signs a lease with the LCC through 2017-2018.

2007: The LCC hires a consultant to evaluate tax increment financing laws (TIF) to see if TIF revenues could be used to help build a new downtown arena across High Street from Rupp Arena.

August 2008: The LCC approves a feasibility study to determine if private financing (not taxpayer money) could fund a new downtown basketball arena, renovation of Commonwealth Stadium, and a new UK baseball stadium. Under the initial plan, IMG and International Stadia Group (ISG) would raise the funds to build the new arena and finance construction through luxury box leases, advertising, and naming right. UK and the LCC would retain operational control of the new arena.


November 2009: The first rendering of a new downtown arena surfaces on ISG’s website, along with a release stating that the entire project (new downtown basketball arena, CWS renovation, and new baseball stadium) would total over $500 million, with construction starting in January 2010.

January 2010: Construction does not start.

December 2010: UK shelves the project and defers to the city on whether or not to renovate or replace Rupp.

January 2011: Lexington Mayor Jim Gray calls for another study to explore the feasibility of renovating Rupp and the convention center. The study is financed with $350,000 in private donations.

January 28, 2011: John Calipari gives his first comments on whether or not to renovate or replace Rupp. In a press conference previewing a game against Georgia, Cal said that he expects UK to be the “gold standard” in every aspect of college basketball, including the arena. At this time, the battle lines are drawn, with UK wanting a new arena, potentially on campus if the city refused to offer support; and the Mayor wanting to either renovate Rupp, or build a new arena downtown as a compromise.


Brent Rice, Chairman of the Rupp Arena Task Force

November 30, 2011: The results of the feasibility study are in and Brent Rice, the chairman of the Arena, Arts, and Entertainment Task Force (aka “The Rupp Arena Task Force”), announces that it would be considerably cheaper to renovate Rupp than replace it. Renovations would cost between $110 million to $130 million, compared to $300 million to $325 million for a new arena. Renovating the convention center would cost $70 million, compared to $100 million to $130 million for a new convention center.

November 30, 2011: Calipari says Kentucky can still be the gold standard with a renovated Rupp, but that everything must be top-notch. I’m the basketball coach,” Cal said. “I want to make sure whatever my players touch is state-of-the-art and it’s the best in the country. That’s what I care about.” This is the first time Cal publicly supports renovation.

December 12, 2011: Eli Capilouto releases a joint statement with Mitch Barnhart and John Calipari saying that he does not support state funding for renovating or replacing Rupp, and that the project should be funded privately.


December 17, 2011: The Arena, Arts, and Entertainment task force votes unanimously to renovate Rupp, and first renderings are released, complete with wild horses. The design proposes replacing the arena’s metal siding with glass, and replacing the current convention center with a five-building campus linked by covered walkways. This is the first we heard of the buried Town Branch Creek, which would be restored and run through a green space around the arena, convention center, and surrounding retail shops.


January 25, 2012: Mayor Gray releases more renderings showing the inside of a renovated Rupp, complete with a new center-hung 8-sided scoreboard, storm troopers, a garden gnome, a three goggles shirt, and more:


January 2012: Governor Steve Beshear adds $3.5 million to his annual January budget request for a more detailed design.

February 9, 2012: The Rupp District team releases this video about the importance of improving downtown Lexington through the Rupp Arena project.

April 2012: Construction begins on UK’s new locker room in Rupp Arena, a separate $2.9 million project funded by private donors.

June 2012: UK and the city of Lexington announce that Frank Butler, UK VP of Finance and Administration, will take a six-month leave of absence to head up the Rupp project. At the time, this was seen as a good sign of the school’s support.

November 2012: The LCC hires Conventions, Sports, and Leisure International to create a financial plan and market study for the Rupp project. Brent Rice also announces that Frank Butler will continue to be the project director and go on the LCC payroll in January.

April 2013: The Urban City Council approves $2.5 million in state money to fund the planning and design phase of the Rupp project.

June 2013: The Lexington Herald-Leader reports that the Kentucky State Legislature is using money from the coal severance tax to fund the design phase of the Rupp Project, upsetting many in the Eastern part of the state who think the coal tax should be invested back into the mountains. Speaker of the House Greg Stumbo argues that while Rupp may not be in the coalfields, UK basketball is important to the state as a whole.

July 10, 2013: Mayor Gray, Governor Beshear, and representatives of the LCC hold a press conference to announce the hiring of architecutral firm NBBJ and Hunt Construction, and give a progress report. Mainly it is a lot of “Free Rupp” talk, but Gray mentions bigger concourses, all chair-back seats, a new hospitality level with suites, and a new scoreboard as features of the new Rupp. He also doesn’t take naming right off the table, but insists that “Rupp Arena” will always be part of the building’s name. Rice promises that a “bulletproof” financial plan would be done in 30 days. Groundbreaking is scheduled for Fall 2014 (ha!).

Tellingly, UK does not send a major representative to the press conference, choosing instead to have Eric Monday, the Executive VP for Finance and Administration be the representative. At the time, Rice says UK and the LCC are “at the table” discussing the project. Hmm.

July 15, 2013: Mayor Gray comes on KSR to talk about the Rupp project and address fans’ concerns. Matt asks him whether or not any “real fans” were on the Task Force (If Joe B. Hall counts, yes), whether or not naming rights would be sold (as a last resort), and whether or not it was really necessary to group Rupp Arena with the parks and streams plan (yes). Mayor Gray says that he expects the financing plan to be complete within 60-90 days, and that UK is still in “good faith” negotiations with the LCC, and felt it was premature to send a major representative to the press conference.

It was kind of a tense interview.

September 18, 2013: The LCC holds a town meeting to update everyone on the Rupp project. The only major update is that the upper level of Rupp will get a total makeover.

January 21, 2014: Governor Beshear asks the state to provide $65 million in bonds for the Rupp Arena project, the total cost of which is estimated at $310 million. He adds that the rest of the money will come from local and private funds.

February 10, 2014: The newest renderings of a renovated Rupp are released! They are very pretty, and there’s also a video featuring a woman dressed only in a Tony Delk uniform. Deputy Director of Athletics DeWayne Peevy represents UK at the press conference, and tells reporters that the renovation “won’t happen without us,” and there are plans for a big press conference with Mitch Barnhart and Eli Capilouto when the lease with the new Rupp is signed.

March 24, 2014: The Kentucky Senate drops $65 million in bond debt for Rupp as part of a cutback in projects.

March 26, 2014: Matt calls Senate President Robert Stivers to ask why the $65 million in state funding was dropped, and Stivers deflected the blame on Mayor Gray and the House of Representatives, saying that the mayor didn’t give the Sentate enough details of the funding package, and the House didn’t give the Senate enough time to review it.

March 30, 2014: The $65 million in state funding is officially left out of the new state budget.


April 14, 2014: Governor Beshear announces a new plan that will increase state funding to $80 million for the Rupp Project, but not require an increase in Fayette County’s hotel and motel tax, a sticking point for Senator Stivers and the project’s opponents.

April 15, 2014: The Kentucky Senate does not approve the $80 million in state funding.


April 25, 2014: LCC chairman Brent Rice sends UK president Eli Capilouto a letter blaming the university for the uncertainty surrounding the Rupp Project and demanding public support. He gives Eli Capilouto until May 23 to respond.

May 20, 2014: Eli Capilouto responds with a scathing letter of his own, ripping Rice for his shoddy financing plan, which Eli said made it nearly impossible for the university to publicly support the project. He said the financial model was too optimistic, specifically the $300 “Team Wildcat” memberships Rice proposed to help raise $25-$35 million. As a final blow, Eli said that while the university’s “preference” was to continue playing men’s basketball downtown, it will only happen “under the right lease conditions,” and with the Rupp lease set to expire in 2017-2018, the university will “explore all potential options.” giphy

May 22, 2014: Eli’s letter is made public (first on KSR), and Mayor Gray is forced to do major damage control, calling for everyone to “step back, take a deep breath” and try to work things out. Meanwhile, Dakari Johnson calls Aaron Harrison to tell him his nuts are no longer the biggest on campus.

May 23, 2014: Mayor Gray and Governor Steve Beshear will appear on KSR together to discuss the situation. Make sure to put the popcorn bag next to the coffee maker before you go to bed tonight. Michael-jackson-eating-popcorn

Article written by Mrs. Tyler Thompson

No, I will not make you a sandwich, but you can follow me on Twitter @MrsTylerKSR or email me.

15 Comments for The Long and Tortured History of the Rupp Arena Project

    8:04 pm May 22, 2014 Permalink

    WOW…… really have way too much time on your hand to put all that together. : )

    • great
      9:12 pm May 22, 2014 Permalink

      WHY CANT WE JUST LET THIS DIE? Not only am I soooo very tired of hearing about building a new Rupp.. but MOST Kentuckians and Even most Lexington residents think things are MORE THAN FINE the way they currently are? It is just a testament to how carried away an idea can get. Who had the idea to begin with? Why? what is wrong with Rupp now? Why waste all that money? It is pointless.. just cause the fellas down the road goat a new arena a couple years ago? is that SERIOUSLY the best argument we have? It is not needed and the state can use the money for other things… let it go..
      I find it to be EXTREMELY sad that the governor is even entertaining these talks.. Doesn’t our state have much larger problems at the moment? (The correct Answer is it does)

    • JJ
      9:41 pm May 22, 2014 Permalink

      great: You are a moron if you can’t see why a new facility is necessary. UL didn’t become the most profitable basketball program in the country playing in Freedom Hall under the previous deal. The luxury boxes and liquor has made them $$$$$$$. We can’t sell alcohol in the SEC but we can profit on the rest. How long can UK sit back and watch UL fill their pockets with 10 times the amount of revenue UK earns? They are already starting to outclass UK with better facilities across the board.

  2. UKBlue
    8:47 pm May 22, 2014 Permalink

    This whole thing is a cluster; people really need to stop comparing this to what happened with the Yum Center. UK/Lexington issues are way different then UL/Louisville issues; as we have seen the UL deal with Jim Host in charge has been & is a financial disaster & we haven’t even began to feel the ramifications of this deal. UL said what they wanted, and they gave UL even more then they could have ever imagined. UK deal: there are way too many people involved in this deal trying to use UK to get what they want out of this deal. Yes maybe the convention center needs to remodeled, but all the other ridiculous stuff the mayor wants has to go.

  3. Drunkswanson
    8:54 pm May 22, 2014 Permalink

    My guess, UK in willing to play ball until they get the sweetheart deal Louisville got, which essentially screwed tax payers, if they can’t do that they will scramble to build on campus, not the worst thing in the world, but most assuredly not the best thing for the city of Lexington and the state of kentuckys second largest economic engine. I’m not sure i want our cities to be in the arena and convention arms race that is going around this nation, especially noting expense of tickets and statistics showing decrease in attendance, but the UK product is one of the few, Yankees, cubs, alabama football that brings enough leverage for a city to want to capitalize on the synergy. E.C. Gets paid $500k a year, raises tuition and suddenly has issues with financing for our basketball program? Yea right, you are telling me we can privately finance a huge amount of work on out football stadium which for all intents and purposes is in better shape than rupp, but our basketball arena isn’t worth the effort? BS. And to all those folks who think an on campus arena means the “blue hairs” won’t be on the sideline, far chance, on campus arena means worse traffic, less economic impact on the city (not near any hotels or restaurants) and a $250 million dollar price tag that is totally funded by private donations (blue hairs) and the sec network, which if anyone is paying attention wreaks of irony, we are going to pay for multimillion dollar facilities with the very service that is pulling butts out of seats and putting them on couches???? This is assanine. The city might be best to tell UK (former alum here) to go screw themselves and let them do what they want and year rupp down and redevelop the whole damn block it would be better for the city in the long run and have more of a positive impact on more people.

    • Gap Tooth Danny
      9:25 pm May 22, 2014 Permalink

      Go home Drunkswanson, you’re drunk.

  4. Drunkswanson
    8:56 pm May 22, 2014 Permalink

    Posting on a cell phone makes for muy typos

  5. Jim Harris
    8:59 pm May 22, 2014 Permalink

    Hey, I appreciated the comprehensive review of the Rupp Arena planning mess. It is most disappointing to see that the “powers that be” can’t get their act together enough to provide us CATfans with a logical, sensible plan that can actually be carried out on time and within our poor state’s financial capability.

  6. Gap Tooth Danny
    9:29 pm May 22, 2014 Permalink

    When it’s all said and done, there’s a lot more said than done.
    Who would it really affect if UK packed up their banners and went back to Memorial? At most, a few thousand fans, not a drop in the huge bucket that holds all the fans in Big Blue Nation.

  7. Reality
    10:12 pm May 22, 2014 Permalink

    Rupp is a [email protected] hole. We need a new arena. Wires hang down from the rafters of the warehouse and there are freaking bleachers. It is a dump.

  8. Ky_Tom
    10:42 pm May 22, 2014 Permalink

    I say tear the football field down, come play football at the Louisville Fair Grounds, the same for basketball, …Build a 80 thousand seat dome where the football stadium is now…That way, UK could host final fours, and regionals in basketball…Hell, maybe a real NFL team might even look at Lexington if they built a 80 thousand seat stadium…..What is the saying the movie “”field of dreams””, IF You build it, They will come….BBN fans from everywhere, think about it,,, Syracuse had like 70 thousand fans at their Duke Game…UK could do that dang near every least with the better SEC teams coming in to play…There is so much money to be made by the school, but to do it, They will need to have the very best coaches ALL sports, not just some ho-hum coach like UK is use to hiring…With a 75 -80 thousand seat stadium, they could hire one the bigger names in collage football…Again, Bring in the big name coach, .The Top players will come to UK….My case in point….John Calipari 5 years, 4 #1 recruiting classes…UK could do this in football, but they have to spend the money now and build ALL NEW…..enough of this dumping 100 million dollars in a 40 year old building…..

  9. Dee W.
    12:31 am May 23, 2014 Permalink

    “December 12, 2011: Eli Capilouto releases a joint statement with Mitch Barnhart and John Calipari saying that he does not support state funding for renovating or replacing Rupp, and that the project should be funded privately.”

    What’s this??? That Robert Stivers is a clever one – he’s gone back in time to before he was even Senate President and sent out mental vibrations to get these guys to do this.

    “2001-2004: The Lexington Center Corporation (LCC) renovates Rupp Arena and the convention center at the cost of $52 million,”

    Do something along these lines again to renovate / repair / upgrade the current interior of the facility – a much more feasible project.

  10. Joe Dan Gorman
    1:02 am May 23, 2014 Permalink

    Let us mine our coal again—and we’ll build a nice one

  11. maggy longfellow
    2:05 pm May 23, 2014 Permalink

    It is more than apparent that Mayor Gray is trying to extort money from UK. UK went from $2MIL a year lease to $10MIL and the city wants more? When are we going to stop corporate welfare in Lexington? Currently Lexington has five TIF Projects on the books (CentrePointe, 21st Century, etc.). With TIF tax dollars are tied p for 30 years and do not go into the general fund. What happens is that property taxes within the TIF districts do not increase, while property taxes outside the TIF districts go up exponentially to finance the TIF projects owned by private individuals. Tax payers be damned. Rupp is not worth it for Lexington and not worth it for Kentucky.

  12. JerryC
    1:46 pm May 25, 2014 Permalink

    Dee W, the sad fact is that House Speaker, Greg (Stumpy) Stumbo – A yellow Dog if there ever was one – agrees with Senator Stivers. But do you hear Yellow Dog Matt grinding on Stumbo? Of course not, Matt loses all perspective (and common sense) when it comes to politics.