Winter Jam on March 7 was the most recent concert at Rupp Arena in Lexington, Ky. (Courtesy Rupp Arena)

First event since March 12 could take place this month

Rupp Arena will reopen its doors with University of Kentucky basketball as early as late this month and two concerts in December. The 44-year-old building is among the first arenas to host live music and college basketball during the pandemic.

For those events, attendance is restricted to 15% capacity, which amounts to about 3,000 people in the facility, including staff and production crews. Ticketed customers will total about 2,700 patrons, said Carl Hall, Rupp’s longtime director of arena management.

The two concerts are an acoustic country show on Dec. 8 featuring headliner Brantley Gilbert among multiple acts, followed by hip-hop act Three 6 Mafia three days later.  As of this week, the schedule for Kentucky home basketball games had not been confirmed, Hall said.

Rupp Arena is part of Central Bank Center, extending to a convention center and the Hyatt Regency Lexington hotel. The arena has been shut down since March 12, when the Kentucky High School Athletic Association girls basketball tournament was canceled midway during the event.

Rupp’s last two concerts were March 7 (Winter Jam) and March 6 (Zac Brown Band).

Hall has spent the past two months working with the governor’s office and the Kentucky Department for Public Health to develop a comprehensive plan to ensure the safety of ticket holders, staff, athletes and concert artists.

As part of those procedures, Rupp Arena officials took Oak View Group’s new guidelines for post-COVID protocols and modified them for the facility, among other organizations’ best practices, Hall said. 

OVG, owner of VenuesNow, books concerts and other special events at Rupp Arena.

Initially, the state’s original guidelines stipulated the 20,545-seat arena could do events for up to 50% of capacity. Remapping the seating bowl into groups of four seats scattered around the arena got the number to 27% capacity, which amounted to about 5,000 people. 

In an indoor setting, health department officials felt that number was too high and settled on 15%, Hall said.

The country concert, sponsored by local I Heart Radio station 98.1 The Bull, is an annual  charity fund-raiser that historically booked the Lexington Opera House across the street from Rupp Arena. But with the same reduced capacity of 15% enforced in a much smaller venue, there were only 187 seats available in the 984-seat auditorium. 

Overall, the numbers didn’t work at the opera house under those circumstances, Hall said. 

At that point, officials decided to move the concert to Rupp Arena, where the seven acts will perform in the round, similar to the setup for George Strait and Garth Brooks shows, according to Hall.  

Bonaphied Entertainment, an independent promoter, is producing the hip-hop show. In the past, the firm booked the No Limit Soldiers Reunion Tour and Keith Sweat at Rupp Arena, said Brian Sipe, OVG’s director of booking.

Tickets for both shows are on sale now and Sipe said the hip-hop show was tracking better than Bonaphied’s past productions in Lexington. 

“We’re happy and enthusiastic about that because it’s hard to tell what the public’s going to want to do,” he said. “There’s definitely a yearning for some people that if they can do it safely, to come out and enjoy it.”

Despite the reduced capacity, the opportunity remains to generate revenue beyond covering expenses, Hall said. It won’t be the same as packing the arena with close to 20,000 for a concert, but in a broader sense, it helps the city move forward with business as a whole, he said.

“If we can get open and show we can do it safely, reasonably and make it financially viable for all involved, hopefully other promoters will be able to pick up a three-city tour with maybe Charleston (W.Va.), Lexington and Knoxville (Tenn.),” Hall said. 

“We could do some small mini-tours with up and coming acts and keep ticket prices and talent fees low … maybe five to six shows between now and May 1 … that would be a pretty good re-start for our industry, and then we can see where things are going,” he said. 

In Lexington, the pandemic hit during the $310 million, multiyear project to upgrade Rupp Arena and expand the convention center. Ironically, the shutdown helped general contractor Messer Construction catch up after falling behind schedule for a variety of reasons, Hall said. 

“The downside is when the arena opens back up in about three weeks, we’re hoping the phases they accelerated will be completed so we don’t have to ‘stop and start’ every night,” he said. “We’re trying to get them motivated so they can start working outside of the arena doing the next phase for the convention center.”

Central Bank Center, the new name of the convention center tied to a naming rights deal announced in January, should have its first events at the end of March, following the high school basketball tournaments and NCAA men’s basketball first and second round games.

Eight of the convention center’s 16 new meeting rooms and a new 25,000-square-foot ballroom are targeted for completion in May, with the remaining eight meeting rooms and a pavilion ready by January 2022, Hall said. 

The Hyatt never closed, although occupancy has plunged to below 15% during the pandemic. The hotel is now separated from the arena as construction continues on new premium clubs one level below that replace the old shopping mall.

“It’s going to be great to see people back in the building,” Hall said. “Watching COVID cases rise indoors, our greatest concern is the state government will pull back again and start doing shutdowns. That’s why we’re hoping to get these concerts pulled off along with basketball. If we can do that, it will be positive for everybody.”