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Wednesday, September 7, 2011
The five-point checklist for a great arena

By Eamonn Brennan



As you may have already noticed -- or soon will, anyway -- yours truly and the rest of the ESPN.com college hoops staff spent some time discussing college basketball arenas. We've got our favorite arenas list, our personal bucket lists, a spiffy photo gallery, a coaches survey on arenas, a perspective from former players and even a video of Andy Katz and some blogger breaking it all down.

Hey, it's the offseason. We've got to talk about something besides realignment all the time. (Yuck.)

The topic got me thinking: What are the common denominators? Why do we love some arenas but hate others? Why do some old buildings feel like cathedrals while others feel like tombs? Why are some expensive new facilities glittering and gorgeous, while others feel superfluous and desultory?

There are no universal answers. Every good arena must have some combination of various factors. Still, I'd argue -- and I doubt this will be very uncontroversial -- that what separates the best arenas from the "meh" experiences is, you guessed it, the people. If the crowd is hopping and the atmosphere lively, from a sheer basketball standpoint you don't need 17,000 seats or the shiniest amenities money can buy. The building doesn't matter. It's how you fill it that counts.

So, for the sake of argument, let's preemptively take "a winning program" and "a good overall crowd/fan interest" off the checklist. I mean, duh, right? Let's list five other reasons why good arenas are good arenas. Some buildings may have only one characteristic. Some may have all five. But every college hoops building in America should have at least one.

1. A great student section. Not to be confused with "a good overall crowd/fan interest." I know, I know, it's close. But when it's done well, the college hoops student section is an entirely different animal from the rest of the paying attendees. And it's not always done well, even at the biggest or most hoops-focused schools.

For example: Indiana. The Hoosiers boast one of the largest student sections in the country, and IU deserves credit for finding a way to ticket so many of its students when it could no doubt charge well-heeled boosters prime prices for swaths of student seats. But because Assembly Hall's layout is the way it is, the students are divided throughout the arena. There are students on the floor near the baseline. There are students in the the elevated sideline corner. And there are students all the way up in the cheap-o balcony seats. The net effect, despite Indiana fans' consistent intensity, is one of disorganization.

Eric Gordon
The proximity of the Orange Krush to the court makes for a great scene in Champaign.
Contrast that with, say, Illinois, where Assembly Hall has a layout conducive to student seating (which is lucky, really) and a student section that self-polices and tallies fundraising efforts for the right to the best tickets in the house. The "Orange Krush" isn't just a T-shirt. It's an actual group with actual leadership that does actual things from coordinating philanthropy to distributing pregame chant cheat sheets. The difference is palpable.

Does your arena sacrifice student seating for the benefit of booster perks? Sometimes it can't be helped, but when it can, schools ought to air on the side of better student seating and a more organized section. The benefit almost always outweighs the cost. (Besides, football makes all the money anyway. Raise those prices a few bucks, and voila! This has been Business 101 with your professor, Eamonn Brennan.)

2. Tradition and/or charm. If Kansas wasn't Kansas, would people still go to Allen Fieldhouse? Of course they would. That's because Allen Fieldhouse -- or so I've been told; I still haven't been, and I'll keep bringing it up until Edge finally sends me -- has the benefit of its storied place in college hoops and the charm of its classic fieldhouse style. Case in point? The Palestra. Penn hasn't been a hoops power -- which is putting it nicely -- for quite some time. But ask a college hoops fan about the Palestra and see if you can't spot a glimmer in his or her eye. If Butler were a hoops also-ran, Hinkle Fieldhouse would still be the cathedral of "Hoosiers" fame and Hoosiers' dreams.

If your arena qualifies for historical landmark status, you probably have a pretty awesome arena. True story.

3. Volume, and lots of it. Brand new arenas might have the biggest cupholders and the most pixels on their Jumbotrons, but they can be devoid of character for a variety of reasons. Maybe they're antiseptic. Maybe the corporate sponsorship has sucked the personality out of the arena. Or, most importantly, maybe the new arena -- with all that space for luxury boxes -- is simply too cavernous to be loud.

Contrast that with a place like Purdue's Mackey Arena. Mackey is hardly an architectural gem. It's old, it's drab, and it appears to be made entirely of concrete. But the original designers got one thing right: acoustics. The place is loud. Purdue fans should get most of the credit for that, but their building -- which seems to push those fans' voices into a crushing wave in the middle of the gym -- is particularly good in its own right, too.

4. Size. Of course, not everyone can have Oklahoma State's old Gallagher-Iba Arena, which before it expanded was a lovable fieldhouse that combined decibel levels with nostalgic hoops charm. Some arenas have to be big -- and at the right program, that can be a huge advantage. Consider how disoriented Carrier Dome visitors must feel in front of 34,000 screaming Syracuse fans. Kentucky's Rupp Arena lacks a variety of modern amenities, and fans' feelings about it are less tied to the building than to the winners it has housed. But playing at Rupp must be a hugely intimidating experience. The Dean Dome has never been known for its rowdy fans; Tar Heels fans have long been characterized (whether fairly or not) as the "we'll sit here and cheer when you deserve it" sort. But the Dean Dome is nonetheless a daunting environment.

When you're a top-flight program, it makes sense to have a big arena, and not just because you can fill more seats and make more money. (More business advice. I should really start a Dabble class.) In these cases, the arenas match the personality of the programs themselves. You're supposed to be intimidated when you play at Kentucky. You're supposed to feel the cultural weight of Orange basketball when you walk into the Carrier Dome, even when it's empty. It doesn't matter how nice the seat cushions are. Sometimes, it's the seats themselves that matter.

5. General weirdness. Your team gets to practice and play in your gym all the time. Opponents don't. That's why having an unusual setup -- awkward sightlines, an elevated floor, unconventional seating arrangements, all of it -- can be such inherent advantages. Vanderbilt has never been a particularly scary program, but guess what? No one likes to play in Memorial Hall. Coaches hate the baseline benches; shooters struggle with the gym's views. Same goes for Minnesota, whose Williams Arena -- aka "The Barn" -- features a raised floor and an impossibly high ceiling. New Mexico's arena, The Pit, is actually a pit; the court is 37 feet below ground level.

A while back, Boise State's football program realized that in addition to the attention it would bring, covering its field in blue turf would at best disorient and confuse opponents and at worst distract them. Some of the great buildings in college hoops -- usually unintentionally -- follow that same principle.

In the end, the building matters far less than the fans that fill it. But all arenas are not created equal. Far from it.