Bitter rivalries are the lifeblood of college sports. But rarely do the stakes get so high as they will this Saturday evening, when the University of Kentucky Wildcats and the Louisville Cardinals go head to head for a shot at the NCAA title game in New Orleans. It’s the most important game in the rivalry’s history, with the two teams never having met this late in the tournament.
Duke and North Carolina’s legendary enmity has long been the standard against which all college men’s basketball rivalries are judged, but with a good game Saturday, the “Battle of the Bluegrass” will certainly make its case to be near the top.
The two teams first met in 1913, with Kentucky winning 34-10. The rivalry went dormant through most of the middle of the 20th century, only to be resurrected by state government intervention. Seriously: In 1983, Kentucky governor John R. Brown Jr. pushed a bill through the state’s legislature forcing the two teams to play each other during the regular season. Both programs have a rich history of winning: The Cardinals have two national championships and nine Final Four appearances. The Wildcats, meanwhile, have the winningest program in men’s college basketball history, with seven national championships and 15 Final Four appearances.
The Wildcats are heavily favored to win on Saturday, but though a large swath of its citizens will be inevitably heartbroken after the game, the Commonwealth of Kentucky itself may be the big winner in all of this. For one, the state gets a moment of visibility in the sports world that’s rare: Kentucky doesn’t have any major professional sports teams, and college football doesn’t dominate the landscape the way it does in most other Southern states. College basketball is king, so having the state’s two biggest programs showcased – together– on a national stage is a further opportunity to catch the attention of top tier high school recruits and new fans. Last year’s pair of Final Four games were the highest-rated since 2005: Butler’s win over Virginia Commonwealth netted an average of 14.2 million viewers, while Connecticut’s win over Kentucky garnered 16.7 million viewers.
Along with that audience comes a number of factors that can help a university’s bottom line, including increased applications, alumni donations, and merchandise sales. After its Final Four run last year, Butler, a 4,500-student private university in Indiana, saw its application rates jump 41 percent. That year’s other Final Four Cinderalla team, VCU, found itself as a Top 5 Google search term.
The front-end costs for a team headed to the Final Four can be steep: In addition to selling a guaranteed number of tickets and buying up hotel rooms, a school must set aside $32,000 to throw a party (really), but the benefits, especially for lesser-known schools, can be immeasurable.
The coaches aren’t complaining, either. In addition to his $3.8 million annual base salary (set to get a $1 million bump starting next season), Wildcats coach John Calipari got a $50,000 bonus for winning the regular season SEC title, $100,000 each for making the NCAA regional semifinals and finals, and $150,000 for taking UK to the Final Four, according to an Associated Press report reviewing each of the Final Four coaches’ contracts. If the Wildcats win the whole shebang, as they look poised to do, Calipari gets an extra $350,000 on top of that.
Louisville coach Rick Pitino, meanwhile, stands to make similar bank. His base salary is $3 million, and he made an extra $50,000 when the Cardinals took the Big East. Another $50,000 followed the NCAA regional semifinals and finals, then $75,000 more for the Final Four trip. If the Cardinals can pull off the upset and win the whole thing, he’ll get another $150,000.
The fans, meanwhile, get the rare privilege of seeing the two teams duke it out on one of the biggest stage in sports. Most college rivalries, including Duke/UNC, are contained within a conference, meaning that no matter how ferocious, a rivalry game rarely has implications beyond the regular season (one glaring exception was January’s college football national championship, when co-SEC teams LSU and Alabama played for the title). Big game grudge matchups do happen, like when the University of Florida Gators played the Florida State Seminoles for a college football national title in 1997, but a rivalry as storied as Kentucky-Louisville attaining such high stakes is a special treat.