Sign of the Apocalypse—By John Huang
(LEXINGTON, Ky.) – What in the world is going on with attendance at Rupp Arena? Cast your eyes up to the rafters and you’ll see rows and rows of blatantly empty bleachers. Downstairs in the lower levels, pockets of premium seats also appear visibly vacant. When the hallowed student eRUPPtion Zone looks embarrassingly anemic night after night, you know the basketball world has tilted off its axis. Bringing in stand-ins because students don’t show, or throwing in the Louisville game as part of a promotional ticket package? You gotta be kidding me!
Trust me, I’ve heard all the explanations for the downturn. Bad opponents, bad economy, bad timing, and bad weather combining with busy schedules, high def TVs, high ticket prices, and one-and-done fatigue to create a perfect storm of apathy, disinterest, and scalper panic within the BBN. I don’t believe any of it, but regardless of the reasons–just tell me it ain’t so. Indifference to my Wildcats is like a kick to the groin, a sure sign of the apocalypse and the collapse of our tradition as we know it.
For fans growing up before the new millennium, you know exactly what I’m talking about. A UK seat for a basketball game has always been more valuable than family, faith, or food. Like Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory, it was a golden ticket to status, happiness, and Wildcat enlightenment. As a starry eyed eight-year-old, I remember listening to legendary announcer Cawood Ledford on my transistor radio, dreaming of the day I could see the live, on-court action with my very own eyes. The few times I was given tickets to exhibition games left me sleepless the night before with burgeoning anticipation.
As a UK student, I always participated faithfully in the ticket lotteries, overjoyed whenever my number was finally called. It was an unspoken responsibility to rise early on a Sunday morning for the treasured chance to sit down low in basketball heaven. I saw my share of highlights from the front rows of the student section, but even as a lottery loser, I still made it a priority to attend every single game. In fact, I witnessed the infamous Dirk Minniefield to Sam Bowie half court alley-oop pass and dunk against LSU from my seat in the rafter nosebleeds. To miss a game—any game—due to something as frivolous as studying for a final exam was pure heresy in my mind.
As a die-hard fan after graduation, I lost my mind one year and purchased season tickets four rows from the floor from a friendly neighborhood ticket broker. The two seats cost me more than my entire yearly budget, but to me it was worth the sacrifice. Despite the scorn of the blue haired, big donors seated around me, I always arrived early, stayed late, yelled at the refs, and stood up whenever I wanted. Memories of watching–from floor level–Rick Pitino’s beatdown during his return to Rupp, Tayshaun hitting those five threes against North Carolina, and Ashley’s pit stains up close and personal still sends me into a state of nostalgic ecstasy.
Due to my current media gig, I gave up my usual seats in the end zone of Rupp a couple of years ago. I’ll be the first to admit, the separation hasn’t been easy. Experiences in Rupp are like incremental rites of passage, watershed moments that define who you are and where you’ve been. John Wall’s first game heroics against Miami of Ohio and Anthony Davis’ game saving block against North Carolina are remembered as vividly as your wedding day or the birth of your first child. It’s precisely memories such as those that leave me perplexed and befuddled as to why people have quit coming.
“We’re number one in the country in attendance, we’re just not as high as we’ve been,” said Coach Cal when I asked him to give me his take on all the empty seats. “That’s kind of like when we win by 16 and you people are mad we don’t win by 25. We’re number one in attendance. And there are games I don’t feel like coming to, so I get it.”
You see, that’s the problem. I’m not sure Cal or the university administration fully gets it. Everyone knows that what sets Kentucky Basketball apart from Duke, North Carolina, Kansas, or UCLA is the passion of the fans. Whether it’s the Unforgettables, or Team Turmoil, or a Billy G. train wreck, BBN’s identity has always been wrapped up in their massive and undying fan following. Long-time fans like me show up and attend games, regardless of circumstances, or whether the team soars or stinks.
Calipari and others pooh-pooh the declining Rupp attendance as simply a sign of the times. I think it signals the beginning of something a bit more ominous. If not the apocalypse, then perhaps the beginning of a subtle citizen’s revolt, a barely perceptible undercurrent of discontent about the direction the program is headed and the way the “average Joe” fans are treated–dismissively cast aside for the sake of the almighty dollar. You’ve already seen it happen in football. Could our sacred basketball program be next?
Call me old fashioned, but I never thought I’d see the day when Kentucky Basketball couldn’t fill Rupp Arena. Is it a sign of the times or a sign of the apocalypse? We’ll know better after the next three games.
John Huang is a columnist for Nolan Group Media. If you enjoy his writing, you can read more at www.huangswhinings.com or follow him on Twitter @KYHuangs.