College basketball in Kentucky may approach pre-COVID attendance despite varying restrictions

Hayes Gardner
Louisville Courier Journal
View Comments
Kentucky’s fans let out a cheer as the team comes on to the floor. 
Oct. 29, 2021

If you want to be in New York City’s Madison Square Garden to watch No. 10 Kentucky play No. 9 Duke on Nov. 9, you’re required to be vaccinated. If you’re playing in the game, though, you don’t.

College basketball is back, and with it comes some stipulations for fans as the sport returns to a sense of normalcy despite the ongoing pandemic: there are still more than 1,500 cases of COVID-19 in the commonwealth each day.

For the vast majority of college basketball games this season, proof of COVID-19 vaccination is not required, and masks are either recommended or purported to be required. At UK’s Rupp Arena, masks are required — although that has not been strictly enforced — but at Louisville’s Yum Center, masks are not required, simply recommended. Most fans opted not to wear masks during the Cardinals' first exhibition against Kentucky State.

Other Division-I schools in Kentucky, like Western Kentucky, Murray State, Eastern Kentucky, Northern Kentucky, Murray State and Bellarmine have, in some way or another, asked that spectators wear masks during home games.

Capacity for college basketball games was greatly reduced last year, before the advent of a widely available vaccine, but most activities have since returned to 100%. And attendance at recent college football games, as well as basketball season ticket sales, suggest that crowds will likely be a bit smaller than, but still approach, pre-pandemic numbers.

Louisville fans look on as Matt Cross puts the ball to the floor during Louisville's 94-45 exhibition win over Kentucky State on Oct. 29. Masks are not required, simply recommended, for fans at the Yum Center.

Not everyone has returned to sporting events, however.

Ed Rosen, 72, has regularly attended U of L athletic events ever since he moved to Louisville in 1980. He’s had season tickets to men’s basketball games in the past, and recently had tickets to football, women’s basketball and baseball games. He has even traveled to the College World Series in Omaha, Nebraska, to support the Cardinals.

But he didn’t attend football games this season due to the pandemic, and although he plans to go to some women’s basketball games this season, he’ll do so because he knows he’ll be wearing a mask and able to spread out in the spacious Yum Center.

Otherwise, he’s concerned about returning to a traditionally full arena.

“It’s too chancy,” he said of packed crowds, particularly indoors. “When you’re sitting in a crowd like that, with people right up on you, not knowing whether they’ve been vaccinated, not knowing whether they’re asymptomatic or anything else, and they’re screaming and yelling … I just don’t feel that that’s a chance that’s appropriate for me to take.”

More:Louisville basketball displays fast offense in 94-point exhibition, beating Kentucky State

Louisville announced an attendance of 13,023 at its exhibition on Oct. 29, which was fewer than watched its only exhibition in 2019 (15,009), and Kentucky's official crowd on Oct. 29 (17,133) was smaller than its 2019 counterpart (19,527). Both figures are about 12%-13% fewer than 2019 numbers, but expectations of the 2021 teams versus the 2019 ones could have played a factor, as well as the pandemic.

Scott Havel is a Louisville native and lifelong Cardinal fan, and he was at U of L’s exhibition an hour before tipoff. He's vaccinated, he said, and had no hesitancy in attending this game, or any others; with affordable season tickets he was able to purchase by being a football ticket holder, he plans to go to just about every home game this season.

“Just excited to be back,” said Havel.

That seems to be the mindset for the majority.

Kentucky fans cheer on the Blue and White scrimmage.
Oct. 22, 2021

Season ticket figures for men’s college basketball in Kentucky are approaching 2019-20 numbers, and in the case of Eastern Kentucky, this year’s ticket sales are actually slightly higher than 2019.

For Louisville, as of Oct. 26, nearly two weeks ahead of its regular-season opener, the school had sold 13,467 season tickets, which is 95% of the total sold for the 2019-20 season and on pace with the 2018-19 campaign.

As of Oct. 25, again, two weeks ahead of the opener, Western Kentucky had sold 93% of its 2019-20 totals.

Kentucky has sold 13,751 season tickets for this season as of Oct. 31, which is 89% of its 2019-20 total. Each school noted it will continue to sell tickets until its home opener.

Kentucky:'We're just not as good as we think we are': Focus on UK defense after exhibition opener

As for football, through four home games, Louisville has seen a 24% decrease in attendance as compared to its first four games in 2019 — but that could be due in part to performance, rather than the pandemic.

Kentucky, in what has been a successful season, has seen a slight increase (2%) in attendance as compared to its first five home games in 2019, as has WKU (3%), although a boost from hosting Indiana certainly helped.

For fans attending college basketball games this year, each venue may have slightly different rules.

Duke, an ACC foe of Louisville's, is requiring fans to be vaccinated or test negative to attend games, but the Cardinals do not visit Cameron Indoor this season. 

For UK’s game against Duke in the Champions Classic at Madison Square Garden, per New York City mandate, spectators must be vaccinated, although visiting athletes and performers are not required to be.

Wildcats:Kentucky basketball's history after bad seasons offers hope for unforgettable 2021-22

So, all New York Knicks players, including UK’s Julius Randle, Nerlens Noel, Immanuel Quickley and Kevin Knox, must be vaccinated, but visiting NBA players and players competing in the Champions Classic are not.

And although fans at Madison Square Garden are not required to wear a mask, most road venues for UK and U of L will require the opposite: masks, but not vaccination. That’ll be the case when Louisville visits Michigan State or UK plays at Notre Dame, for example.

Things have not fully returned to normal, as exemplified by Kentucky’s continuing case count, but fans should find that, at least based upon restrictions — and the 100% capacity — the 2021-22 season will have more parallels to pre-pandemic times than to last season.

Hayes Gardner can be reached at; Twitter: @HayesGardner.

View Comments