Analysts and Vegas oddsmakers may be giving an edge to Kentucky in its Final Four matchup with Louisville on Saturday, but off the court the Cardinals may walk away as the big winner, regardless of the score.
It’s quite likely Louisville will end up as the more successful program once dollars are counted. It’s happened before: Louisville’s net revenue from men’s basketball was higher than any other program in the country last year. At $27.5 million, it dwarfed Kentucky’s $6.5 million, according to NCAA data.
It would be easy to conclude that Louisville’s inaugural season in the KFC Yum! Center propelled the program to its revenue highs. But in Louisville’s last year at Freedom Hall, it still made $11.6 million more than Kentucky.
What about the fact that Louisville sells alcohol at basketball games? The athletic department receives only 50 percent of concession revenue at KFC Yum! Center, which netted out to $421,000 last season.
The biggest difference between the schools comes in a category the NCAA calls “contributions,” which include donations to the athletic department, the majority of which come from the minimum donations people must make to be eligible for suites and other premium seating.
Louisville received more than $20.2 million in basketball-related contributions last year. Kentucky, which did not allocate by sport, received a total of $14.6 million for all sports combined.
In Freedom Hall, Louisville basketball’s previous home, it made $1.6 million on suite rentals and $10.8 million in ticket-related contributions. In its new arena, those numbers skyrocketed to $5.7 million and $17.2 million, respectively, last year.
How much is Kentucky making in suite rentals and ticket-related contributions? Nothing. Zero. Zilch. Nada. Rupp Arena doesn’t have a single suite for the University of Kentucky to sell.
While not uncommon (it’s the same at Georgia, Florida, Alabama, Mississippi State, Ole Miss and Texas A&M, for example), Kentucky is missing out on big money. Tennessee’s suites, added in 2008, each run $35,000 to $50,000 annually. At South Carolina, suites bring in $42,000 each.
Kentucky might not be missing out for much longer, though. The Arena, Arts and Entertainment District Task Force in Lexington has studied renovating Rupp Arena or building a new facility. One key component of the renovation plans would be suites for Rupp Arena. The demand would seemingly be there. During Rupp Arena’s 34-year tenure, Kentucky has led the nation 22 times in home basketball attendance.
The Wildcats’ contract with Rupp Arena expires in 2018, the same year the current renovations would be completed. But the renovations are not fully funded, and it might be two years before they could begin.
University of Kentucky president Eli Capilouto has not supported either a new arena or the renovation of Rupp, noting the campus has other priorities that may need state funding.