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Kentucky Wildcats: New JMI Sports Deal Unlikely To Produce On-Campus Basketball Arena

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It's just my opinion, but I don't believe that Kentucky is really interested in building an on-campus facility to replace Rupp Arena. UK says they are keeping their options open.

Dr. Eli Capilouto (right) and Mitch Barnhart.
Dr. Eli Capilouto (right) and Mitch Barnhart.
USA Today Sports

I've been asked to provide some commentary on the new marketing deal recently signed between the University of Kentucky and JMI Sports. This deal was a "Multimedia" marketing deal for 15 years and some $210 million dollars. The facts of this arrangement have been well-reported elsewhere, but we'll rehash them a bit here for the sake of interest:

The deal includes:

  • Radio rights to UK’s football, men’s and women’s basketball and baseball games;

  • Stadium and arena corporate signage and game programs for all home UK events, other than those hosted at Rupp Arena;

  • Naming rights to university athletics facilities and premium areas;

  • Sponsorship on UKathletics.com;

  • Game sponsorships and game promotions;

  • Coaches’ endorsements;

  • Pre- and postgame television shows and specials and postseason highlight DVDs;

  • Video features on video boards, other than at Rupp Arena;

  • Opportunities to develop UK Athletics Corporate Partnership Program;

  • and the potential to market campus multimedia rights.

This is pretty much all the stuff IMG has been doing for the last ten years, but the money is much bigger, and television rights are not included, as they are tied up with ESPN and the SEC Network.

Obviously, this is a big influx of cash. Naturally, Kentucky fans are wondering, considering the recent falling out between the city and the University over the Rupp Arena project, if this money might be used to make the Rupp Arena project happen. Even if Mitch Barnhart had not explicitly poured cold water on that theory ...

"This is not about the Rupp Arena piece," Barnhart said. "This is about our sustainability and making sure that operationally and resource-wise we have the ability to look to the future and keep our program where we are competitively, where we are academically. So I don't want to cloud the issues here. This is not about that.

... I would have suggested to you that no, that wasn't going to happen. Kentucky is simply not interested in an investment of the magnitude that Lexington wants, especially not in exchange for exhausting the good will of the Kentucky legislature at a time when the denizens of the Commonwealth are not inclined to contribute the money, at least not to the tune of $80 to $100 million. Dr. Eli Capilouto knows perfectly well where his bread is buttered, and what his priorities are.

A lot of people are wondering about the possibility of building an entirely new on-campus arena with some of this money, but despite the fact that Mitch Barnhart is not explicitly ruling that out, I don't think that's likely to happen. First off, I think you can get a better product by partnering with the city and private enterprise in any such endeavor. There is a lot to like about having the arena surrounded by shopping, restaurants, and other amenities. There is certainly charm in moving the arena back on campus, but I think more can be achieved in partnership with the city.

The downside of any arena proposal, on campus or not, is, "Who pays for it?"  Barnhart clearly has prioritized a new baseball complex, and for good reason — Cliff Hagan Stadium is an eccentric field that isn't really suited to host super-regionals. Barnhart would very much like to correct that deficiency, and it has been near the top of his agenda for some time. Women's basketball also wants a new video board for Commonwealth Stadium, and football continues to need upgrades to aging Commonwealth Stadium and a new practice facility.

But I don't think we can completely rule out the idea of an on-campus arena. It's clear that mayor Jim Gray and president Capilouto had a bit of a discordant conclusion to the first proposal. There are some nicks and cuts in the relationship that need to be repaired, and I don't expect much to happen until after the Lexington mayoral election. Gray doesn't want to be seen as at odds with UK, so until all that is settled, I expect both men to keep their distance and sheathe their rhetorical knives.

Money like this will be spent, for sure, but I think UK also has to have one eye on the O'Bannon trial, among other litigation involving the NCAA. There's no telling what will be the end result of all this, and it wouldn't shock me to see UK consider playing its cards close to the vest until some clarity comes out of that maelstrom, or at least a reasonably clear direction.

As to the question of on-campus arena, it's my feeling that this isn't going to happen. The expense would be almost as great as the proposed upgraded Rupp Arena, and there are simply too many other things Barnhart has in mind for Kentucky athletics for such a large project to be the main focus at this point.