Ryan Shrout, wife Kelly and their 18-month-old son Colin sat on the front row of the Fans First Fan Fest on Saturday night.
The family from Union, Ky., got up close and personal with players on Kentucky’s basketball team for this coming season, never more so than when Brennan Canada drew the family’s attention. Sitting nearby, the junior walk-on from Mount Sterling motioned for Colin to come over and exchange fist bumps with the UK players.
Much to his parents’ delight, Colin did so.
“I don’t know how much it’s NIL or the personality of the team,” Ryan said afterward of what inspired the players’ thoughtfulness. “They really engaged with the fans.”
Jade Pierson and Chase Littlejohn, an aunt-nephew combo from Indianapolis, agreed. They stayed afterward and took selfies with seven UK players: Sahvir Wheeler, Kellan Grady, Keion Brooks, Daimion Collins, Dontaie Allen, TyTy Washington and Lance Ware.
The site, Transylvania University’s Clive M. Beck Center, inspired an intimacy between UK player and fan. It’s capacity is 1,200. Most seats were occupied.
If the profits from this name, image and likeness event inspired the player-fan connection, that was fine with Shrout, who paid $159 per ticket for he and his wife to sit on the front row with Colin in their laps.
“I think I’m good with it,” he said of NIL, which went into effect July 1. “It’s still really early. I don’t know if it can go too far.”
Shrout, a UK graduate (class of 2004) who works in marketing, saw the announcement that the players would donate a portion of the money they made to charity as strategically smart.
“There’s going to be a lot of naysayers,” he said of NIL. “If you can hit back on some of that (with charitable donations), I think it’s a plus.”
More money-making opportunities are being planned, some involving fans and some maybe not, said Greg Lazaroff, a vice president of name, image and likeness for ProCamps, the Cincinnati-based company organizing the Fan Fest. Announcements will be forthcoming.
The Fans First Fan Fest seemed like a mini-Big Blue Madness without the out-sized theatrics. Madness will be Oct. 15. So, why pay now for what you can see for free next month (Oct. 15)?
“Because we’re big Kentucky fans,” said Jonathan Eaglefeather, who came with wife Monica from New Salisbury, Ind.
Added Monica, “And we want to see the team.”
A family from the Cincinnati area — Chad, Shay and daughter Makhia Roberts — expected to be exhilarated by what they would see at Transylvania.
“Greatness,” Chad said of his expectations of the evening as he waited for the doors to open. “It’s going to be fantastic. Can’t have it any other way with Big Blue.”
Highlights of the event, which lasted about 90 minutes, included Washington, a freshman, winning the three-point shooting contest and then again shooting well in the concluding defense-will-be-frowned-upon five-on-five “scrimmage.”
Perhaps most memorable was walk-on Kareem Watkins winning the dunk contest. Listed at 5-foot-8, he wowed the crowd by dunking a ball he first bounced off the court.
There was one telling absence. Because of restrictions in connection with student visas, Oscar Tshiebwe did not participate. Transfer CJ Fredrick, who is nursing a leg injury, and Jacob Toppin did not play in the scrimmage. Their service as referees was highlighted by Toppin calling a technical foul on Washington for protesting an obvious over-and-back violation.
Per NCAA rules, UK insignia was confined to the fans. The players wore white T-shirts and black shorts. To help fans identity who was who, the players’ numbers and their names were on the back of the T-shirts.
As a preview for the 2021-22 season, fans saw the Fan Fest served as a thrilling prelude to a return to Kentucky dominance.
Chad Roberts spoke of Kentucky maybe losing three or four games while winning more than 30.
Pierson also spoke of great expectations for the upcoming season.
“Big things, big things,” she said. “A deep run in the (NCAA) tournament for sure.”
Kentucky will conduct its “Pro Day” in Rupp Arena on Oct. 10, the program announced Friday.
“Pro Day” is a workout in which all 30 NBA teams are invited to attend and do early in-person scouting of UK players. The players will perform agility and shooting drills, and also play in three-on-three and five-on-five scrimmages.
This will be the third time the event will be in Rupp Arena, and the first since 2018.
The SEC Network will televise UK’s “Pro Day.” The two-hour telecast will begin at 5:30 p.m.
Five days later (Oct. 15) Kentucky will stage its annual Big Blue Madness event in Rupp Arena.