Thursday, November 29, 2001

SULLIVAN: Is game getting too pricey?


UK basketball

By Tim Sullivan
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Unconditional love has its limits. Unswerving devotion can be detoured.

        Kentucky basketball is a religion, an obsession, a phenomenon of incalculable depth and imponderable passion. But at some price, in some places, Big Blue ceases to be a bargain.

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        If you want $34 a seat in Cincinnati, you'd better include an open bar.

        Tubby Smith's Wildcats made their annual pilgrimage to the Firstar Center Wednesday night, and the most striking thing about the spectacle was the shortage of spectators. Sections 221 and 223 were empty at the outset of UK's 82-68 victory over Kent State. Attendance was announced as 10,352, less than two-thirds of capacity.

        What's up with that?

        Maybe the college basketball dollar was stretched too thin Wednesday night, with the University of Cincinnati at home and Xavier at Miami. Maybe miserable weather was a mitigating factor. Yet you'd think whenever the Wildcats play this close to their Northern Kentucky faithful, standing room would be in short supply.

        You'd think wrong.

        High interest, prices
       

        “My mom brought about 100 people,” said Erik Daniels, the former Princeton High School star who plays forward for Kentucky. “The people buying tickets from her were saying they thought the prices were pretty steep.”

        “I think probably the prices are too high,” said Larry Ivy, Kentucky's athletic director. “We're going to have a discussion before next year's game to see if we can do something about it. We charge $22 at Rupp (Arena). This is quite an increase.”

        Sacrificing sellouts
       

        UK did not set the rates for Wednesday's game. Firstar Center management pays the school a $300,000 fee for the opportunity to test what the market can bear. UK must generate this much revenue, Ivy said, to justify sacrificing a home game at Rupp Arena.

        Firstar Center, conversely, assumes some risk when it makes such a hefty guarantee. The struggling arena is entitled, and should be encouraged, to turn a profit when possible.

        Yet when UK plays its annual game in Louisville, it rents Freedom Hall and sets its own ticket prices. This is one of the alternative arrangements Ivy may propose when he revisits the Firstar deal, which runs through the 2005-06 season. Firstar management would be smart to stay flexible.

        Short-term, it's better to sell 10,000 tickets at $34 than 15,000 at $22. Yet there are benefits to packing an arena at reasonable rates beyond the resulting surge in popcorn sales.

        A sellout crowd can generate a more positive vibe about an unpopular venue. Some Greater Cincinnati sports fans have never been inside Firstar Center. Get them once, and you might give them reason to come back.

        Among the most troubling trends in sports is the tendency to price the little guy out of the game. When it happens at the college level, it is doubly disturbing.

        With parking, a program and concessions, a family of four could have dropped close to $200 at Wednesday's tilt. If this is a fair price for college basketball, the economy is a lot healthier than it looks.

        Contact Tim Sullivan at 768-8456; fax: 768-8550; e-mail: tsullivan@enquirer.com.

       



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