The History of Rupp Arena

Rupp Arena traces its beginning to April, 1971 when the Lexington-Fayette County Recreational, Tourist, and Convention Commission was formed. One of the first projects of the Tourism Commission was to determine whether a civic center—talked about in Lexington for more than 50 years—was an economically feasible undertaking. The idea was to build a complex with a mix of public and private funds—the first major public complex in the nation to combine such financing.

Plans for such an impressive center for Lexington had cropped up as early as the 1920s. But it would be more than five decades later before such a complex was not just simply the talk of the town. The Lexington Center Corporation Board was officially formed in 1972 and soon the iconic complex would become a reality. Groundbreaking ceremonies for Lexington Center/Rupp Arena were held June 21, 1974.

Central Kentucky, for the first time in its history, now had a complete sports, entertainment and convention facility. In addition, Lexington was now in the market for larger conventions and “big name” entertainment. Chamber President Bob Brewer would proudly proclaim it “the largest multi-purpose facility in America.”

The massive undertaking would finish ahead of schedule with one local resident noting that its opening was “a new high in civic pride.” A Lexington Leader newspaper editorial of October 6, 1976 referred to Lexington Center/Rupp Arena as a “Downtown Dream Come True.” 

The Grand Opening was held October 7-10, 1976 and included a “hard-hat, cold plate lunch.” The invited crowd of 3,500 V.I.P.’s was treated to unprecedented fanfare. As part of the Grand Opening events, the general public could take a guided tour of the extraordinary new facility for 99-cents—and thousands of interested individuals did. Visitors marveled upon touring Rupp Arena, the “largest sporting arena in the country,” complete with seating for more than 23,000 and equipped with a specially-designed 12,000-lb. sound system that still hangs from the ceiling of Rupp Arena today, lovingly nicknamed “Big Bertha.” 

The heart of any thriving community is its downtown—and the historic Rupp Arena and Lexington Center are truly the heart of downtown Lexington and one of the most widely-recognized entertainment venues in North America. 

Historical Highlights 

Economic Impact

Lexington Center/Rupp Arena would bring many benefits to the area, including new employment, a massive construction project for Lexington and new payrolls for greater spending with Lexington merchants. Many different types of materials and supplies would be purchased from local companies. New employment generated by the Center was estimated to produce more than $9.2 million in new payrolls. 

“Big Names”

Lawrence Welk was the first act to perform at Rupp Area, attracting a jaw-dropping 20,000 patrons on Sunday, October 17, 1976 for a 3 p.m. concert—easily surpassing Welk’s previous tour record of 18,000. Tickets were sold for $7.50, $6.50, and $5. The Baron himself, Adolph Rupp, was in attendance, seated in the first row. He would join Welk on stage during the show to the delight of the audience. With so many patrons attending the first-ever event at Rupp Arena, a popcorn shortage occurred during the arena’s inaugural show. Fans did not seem to mind however.

Other acts that followed Welk during the Arena’s first few months of existence included Loretta Lynn and Conway Twitty. Neil Sedaka, The Harlem Globetrotters, the Lipizzaner Stallions, and the Ice Capades.

Available concessions at arena events included frozen custard, hot chocolate, Smokey Reds, bratwurst, BBQ and specialty sandwiches. Rupp Arena’s state-of-the-art new grills could cook 17,000 hot dogs per hour while the warmers could keep up to 10,000 boxes of popcorn hot and ready.

All in all, a handful of bands would play the 23,000-seat auditorium in its first year. The following year, 27 groups, including international stars such as the Rolling Stones and Fleetwood Mac would play Rupp Arena.

Fleetwood Mac would fully test Rupp Arena’s capacity to accommodate large crowds by drawing nearly 21,000 fans on July 16, 1977. The headline recapping the concert in the local newspaper read, “Fleetwood Mac leaves its fans dancing in the aisles in Lexington.” Clearly Rupp Arena was now on the map for touring musicians.

The Rolling Stones chose Lexington’s Rupp Arena as one of its only 20-city tour sites in 1979. The Stones set the all-time attendance record—23,338—for an indoor concert in Kentucky.

Other such notable performers including Paul McCartney, Bruce Springsteen, KISS, Willie Nelson, Bob Seger, Rod Stewart, Jerry Lee Lewis, Jimmy Buffet, Tina Turner, Garth Brooks, Phil Collins, Elton John and Billy Joel, Kenny Chesney, and Taylor Swift have also performed at Rupp Arena.

Ringling Bros. Barnum & Bailey Circus also brought their traveling road show to Rupp Arena during the arena’s first year of operation—after an absence in Lexington of 23 years. Without an indoor facility in the area large enough to accommodate the colossal traveling circus, the show’s organizers had not included Lexington on the tour schedule since 1954, when it had originally performed under massive outdoor tents. The Barnum Circus first played Lexington in 1885 and the Ringling Show in the 1890s before the two shows combined in 1919. Fans across the Commonwealth were delighted to once again be able to see “The Greatest Show on Earth” thanks to Rupp Arena.

Concessions

From day one Rupp Arena has earned its well-deserved reputation for a vast offering of tasty treats. In fact, a newspaper article profiling the available concessions at the newly opened Rupp Arena featured the comments of an out of town visitor, noting, “Rupp Arena has some of the best hot dogs and ice cream found at any sports facility.”

In a bit of self-described “investigative journalism,” one local newspaper reporter would later go so far as to consume six hot dogs in less than one hour during a basketball game at the arena. He gave Rupp Arena’s hot dogs his “top rating.”

Family Shows

Rupp Arena is widely-known for its extensive offering of family shows, including world-famous circuses, rodeos, ice shows, indoor horse shows, pro tennis, and prestigious athletic events.

Rupp Arena formerly hosted the Kentucky Thoroughblades minor-league hockey team (1996-2001), the Lexington Men O' War minor-league hockey team (2002-2003), and the Lexington Horsemen arena football team (2003-2009).  

“The house the Baron built.”

The University of Kentucky men’s basketball Wildcats made their move into Rupp Arena on November 27, 1976, playing against the University of Wisconsin and ending over two decades of play in historic Memorial Coliseum on UK’s campus. The Wildcats won 72-64, playing in front of 23,266 fans.

Many of Kentucky’s former All-American basketball players strolled the aisles shaking hands with excited fans. 75-year-old legendary former U.K. Coach Adolph Rupp was also in attendance for the historic moment. One newspaper account reported that tears streamed down the Baron’s face upon his rousing introduction as the ear-splitting roar of Kentucky’s fans’ cheers filled the monument bearing Mr. Rupp’s name. Mr. Rupp would pass away less than one year later in 1977.

Rupp Arena and the Kentucky Wildcats men's basketball program regularly leads the nation in college basketball home attendance. Four national championship teams at Kentucky have called Rupp Arena home over the past 36 seasons (1978, 1996, 1998, and 2012).

In March of 1985, Rupp Arena hosted the NCAA men’s basketball Final Four National Championship. In addition, in 1986 Rupp Arena played host to both the men’s Southeastern Conference Tournament and the NCAA Women's Final Four and been the site of 5 NCAA regional tournaments.

Since 1995, Rupp Arena has also been home to the PNC/KHSAA high school boys’ basketball Sweet Sixteen® tournament which determines Kentucky’s annual state champion with sixteen teams representing each of Kentucky's regional high school champions. Prior to 1995 the tournament rotated between Lexington and Louisville dating back to 1919.

Over a period of four days each spring, approx. 100,000 plus loyal fans flock to Rupp Arena for those 8 sessions to cheer on their favorite high school basketball team. The thrilling round of tournament games has all the pomp and circumstance and excitement of an NCAA Final Four event. Rupp Arena holds the all-time attendance record for the Sweet Sixteen® tournament: 21,283 (1987).  

The most famous concert at Rupp Arena that never was.

Hundreds of devoted fans lined up as early as two days in advance to purchase advance sale tickets for the Elvis Presley concert scheduled for August 23, 1977 at Rupp Arena. One fan reportedly had been telephoning Rupp Arena “every week” since it opened to find out whether or not Elvis would be performing there. Seemingly, her dream was about to come true.
Ticket prices ranged from $10-$15 and as tickets went on sale on Sunday morning at 9 a.m. an estimated 3,000-4,000 people were standing in line to get first crack at the 10,400 tickets that reportedly would be available. The seating limitation was prescribed by Presley’s management firm. Due to the initial overwhelming demand, some 13,000 additional seats were also opened up. Lexington Center Executive Director Tom Minter considered it the “most important entertainment event in the short history of Lexington Center.” With little or no paid advertising the promoters had managed to sell out Rupp Arena.

But unfortunately the concert was not to be. Elvis Presley would die of heart failure on the morning of August 16, 1977—exactly one week before he was to perform at Rupp Arena.

Fans across Kentucky who had purchased tickets for the concert were understandably devastated. While some would redeem their tickets for the original purchase price, many more opted to simply keep their unused ticket as a cherished memento and concert collectible. 

Historical information compiled from archived documents including newspaper articles, notes, newsletters, and
press releases. 

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