Emotion vs. reality: Rupp Arena edition

July, 9, 2013
7/09/13
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Rupp Arena, home of one of college basketball's most storied programs, is going to change. This much is inevitable. On Wednesday, Lexington, Ky., city officials and Kentucky Governor Steve Beshear will address the public at a news conference, where they are expected to announce plans to do ... well, something. This is not a new development, generally speaking. City and state officials have been openly debating how best to update (or completely replace) Rupp for at least two years.

Any public works project that means as much to a state as the home of the Wildcats do to Kentucky is sure to cause no small amount of tussling between primary stakeholders. But one thing seems certain: For all its charms -- and maybe it's all the concrete, but when that building gets loud, look out -- Rupp has long since grown outdated, even drab, particularly in comparison with rival Louisville's glimmering Yum! Center. One way or another, Rupp Arena is going to change. Most Kentucky fans seem to be on board.

Save one. This week, the Lexington Herald-Leader's Jerry Tipton found at least one dyed-in-the-wool member of Big Blue Nation who is so outraged by the possible changes to Rupp Arena -- especially the potential creation of high-end luxury and loge boxes -- she is threatening to renounce her royal blue roots entirely. Jeanette Hislope means business, y'all:
"I sat here and cried," she said [referring to an online poll about luxury boxes in Rupp Arena]. A self-described "good old girl from Somerset," Hislope spoke of a UK fan base united behind its team. Rich and not-so rich. Black and white. Men and women. Boys and girls.

"It's like we're all in this together and we're all one big family," she said. "That's what I like. To me, it's all about being part of that crowd, and somebody you don't know yelling in your ear and high-fiving you when we make a three-pointer." [...]

"I always bleed blue," she said before adding, "I think this will make me opt out of the Big Blue Nation if they mess with Rupp Arena." [...] "Very few things are deal-breakers. That's one. I would never say a word against the Big Blue Nation. But I'd be done. That will ruin what I consider the heart and soul of Rupp Arena."

So, a few reactions here:

1. For better and for worse, this is why Kentucky's fans are great. Wildcats basketball is not a part of the culture; for many, it is the culture. That any one fan would be so impassioned about the possibility of adding what most sports fans consider part of the bargain these days is testament enough. Viewed through that lens, it's actually kind of cool.

2. I don't know Ms. Hislope, and I'm sure her word is bond ... but I find it hard to believe anyone this passionate about UK basketball could stop carrying her Big Blue Nation card due to a change in seating arrangements.

3. Sports would be perfect, if only the world were perfect, too.

In a perfect world, Kentucky could renovate its aging arena with enthusiastic participation from various government agencies, university authorities and boosters, and local chambers of commerce. All would agree wholeheartedly that the arena renovations should be budgeted for a bajillion dollars. Every fan would receive free mint chocolate chip ice cream for life, maybe. Just spit-balling here. The important thing is that nothing about Rupp Arena would change, at least not perceptibly; everything would just somehow be ... better. At the very least, there would be no need to exact profit-maximizing principles on Kentucky's various demographic tiers. For two hours a couple times a week, everyone would just be equal.

I wish this world existed. I wish collegiate sports weren't beholden to the same economic forces that beguile us in every other facet of life. I wish the theories Tipton refers to from Harvard professor Michael Sandel's What Money Can't Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets helped UK appease all parties in its search to finance a new arena deal. I wish college and pro sports arenas weren't typically the result of completely cynical ploys designed to allow billionaires to avoid paying for their own ego cathedrals, in favor of vague threats aimed at cash-strapped taxpayers. I wish everything that surrounded the games was as pure as the games themselves, as pure as the bonds we form within them.

Alas, this is not the world we live in. If the City of Lexington and the State of Kentucky have to build and bill luxury boxes to help finance the cost of Rupp Arena renovations -- or even if they agree to say that's what they have to do, even if it isn't necessarily the case -- that is what will happen. Sports are the loci of our collective emotion; we think they should exist apart. They don't. Without luxury boxes, tickets closer to the floor cost more than tickets in the nosebleeds; with them, wealthy folks will have another place to spend $15 on 12 ounces of Bud Light.

This is our world, our society, our culture, our way of life. Our beloved games must exist within it. Of course they do. We don't even get free ice cream.

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