Arena interior via UofL Card Game/ Arena interior via UofL Card Game/


Home of the Preseason No. 2 University of Louisville Cardinals
Capacity: 22,000
Louisville, KY

A ninety-minute drive west from Lexington brings us to Louisville, home of the University of Louisville Cardinals and the 22,000-seat KFC Yum! Center. The close proximity of the two main Kentucky universities, both geographically and competitively, is remarkable, and if you include nearby Bloomington, IN – home to top-ranked Indiana Hoosiers – the Northern Kentucky-Southern Indiana region seems to have wrestled the title of the Nation’s Best College Basketball Area away from Tobacco Road in North Carolina.


KFC Yum! Center and exterior plaza, via UofL Card Game
KFC Yum! Center and exterior plaza, via UofL Card Game

The KFC Yum! Center sits between Main Street and the Ohio River in downtown Louisville, a city of 250,000. The gleaming new Populous designed glass box opened in 2010 and is a major piece of a plan to redevelop downtown Louisville. The prominent downtown site is adjacent to the Clark Memorial Bridge that connects Kentucky to Indiana.  The KFC Yum! Center sits back from Main Street, allowing for a generous 1.5 acre landscaped plaza to serve as the front lawn to this new mega-arena.

The KFC Yum! Center lobby, via deadrichmond Flickr

As the name indicates, the University of Louisville is not shy in its feelings for corporate presence in its sporting arenas. A $13.5 million deal gave the fast food giant Yum! naming rights to the arena and its subsidiaries KFC, Taco Bell and Pizza Hut are all over the concession areas. And the basketball arena is not alone. The Cardinals football team plays their home games at 55,000-seat Papa John’s Stadium and the basketball and volleyball teams practice in the just completed 52,000 sf Yum! Center. As with most major college athletic programs today, Louisville is heavily backed by private investment and in this case large checks are written by UL alum and Papa John’s Pizza founder John Schnatter. Such commercial presence in the academic world could be considered dubious, but this is how business is done in college athletics and the University of Louisville is not keeping any secrets as to where their allegiances lie – at least they are being honest.

KFC Yum! Center from across the Ohio River, via SeeMidTN Flickr

The garish, commercial nature of the arena’s branding masks what is actually a thoughtful, well designed building. If you cover up the fast food logos sloppily thrown up on the silver facade, you see a sensitively designed waterfront arena. While some of the moves, especially those on the Ohio River side, are awkward – cutting the facade in two with the big bowed window, the fairly obvious S-curved roof’s reference to water – the exterior plazas on Main and 2nd Streets and the glass atrium lobby create an urbanity and a civic nature to the large arena that is surprising given its heavy corporate branding.

Freedom Hall’s less than wonderful exterior, via Wikipedia
The unusually long interior was designed for horse shows, via UofL Cardbook

The KFC Yum! Center seems downright cosmopolitan when compared to Freedom Hall, the previous home for Louisville basketball since 1956. Freedom Hall is an 18,000-seat arena that sits at the center of the Kentucky Fair and Exposition Center, a 1 million sf indoor expo center five miles south of downtown Louisvile. Assembly Hall and the 36,000-seat Cardinal Stadium – the longtime home to Louisville Cardinals football team – form a strange collection of low-slung convention hall and sport facilities at this suburban complex. With the opening of the KFC Yum! Center, Papa John’s Stadium and the 13,000-seat Louisville Slugger Field, the sporting days of the Exposition Center are largely numbered. The prime event that still takes place in Freedom Hall, and the event for which it was designed, is the Kentucky State Fair World’s Championship Horse Show, the nation’s premier equestrian event. The 300-foot-long course required for the horse show gives the arena its unusually long shape, causing strained viewing angles for anyone seated behind the baskets.

Inside the Woodford Reserve Club with view of Ohio River, via Populous

The new building is designed for basketball only and the 22,000 seats perfectly conform to the 94-foot court below. The two-tiered seating is separated by two levels of luxury suites and boxes, a configuration typical in modern basketball arenas. The abundance of boxes is strange for an arena without a professional franchise. but at this level college athletics have become big business.

Full house at the KFC Yum! Center, via Business of College Sports

Like many modern arenas, the KRF Yum! Center experience is about more than just watching sport; there are 6 lounges if you get bored and 72 suites and 62 premium boxes are available for your game viewing pleasure. Comfort is the name of the game here in Louisville, a much different experience to the bleacher seating of Rupp Arena in Lexington. In addition to basketball and baseball bats, Louisville is synonymous with whiskey and at this arena the Maker’s Mark Lounge, Woodford Reserve Club, Burnett’s V Lounge and Evan Williams Bourbon Bar provide ample opportunity to sip what’s good and local. It might all seem a bit much, especially compared with the limited offerings at other major college arenas but, if it keeps people coming on a nightly basis, it is hard to argue with the model.

The impact of all these options, along with the success of Louisville teams on the court, has been packed KFC Yum! Center houses every night. Since it opened in 2010, Louisville is behind only Syracuse and Kentucky in average attendance and expected success in 2012-13 will no doubt keep the locals coming. Though with buckets of chicken and tumblers of whiskey as the in-game meal of choice for Cardinal faithful, local rivals might have the last laugh.

Up next: 1. Assembly Hall, Bloomington, IN – Indiana University Hoosiers