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Official Review by John McCurdy, Stadium Journey Regional Correspondent
The Georgia Force – metro Atlanta’s arena football team – have had some trouble making up their minds. First, they were the new Nashville Kats, when the first incarnation of that franchise was sold before the 2002 season.
Then, we played “follow the bouncing AFL squad” as the Force played home games at Philips Arena for a year, then at the Arena at Gwinnett Center for two, then back at Philips for three and then one final at the Center before folding…
…only to come back when the Alabama Vipers (themselves previously the Tennessee Valley Vipers of af2 and then the UIF) came to town. Confused?
This much I know for sure: I saw the Georgia Force play at the Arena at Gwinnett Center in the summer of 2012, and it wasn’t a bad experience at all.
The FANFARE scale is our metric device for rating each stadium experience. It covers the following:
Each area is rated from 0 to 5 stars with 5 being the best. The overall composite score is the "FANFARE Score".
Perhaps the Force will finally settle down when fans taste the grub. With variety like this, you'd have to try to NOT find something to your liking.
Around the concourse, the various options will be grouped together in "food courts" of sorts; there are three of these, and each features your regulars - burgers, hot dogs, chicken - at the Georgian Grill and a combination of the other eateries: PW's Cheesesteaks, Salsa Cantina, Pizza and Hot Dogs (they kind of ran out of steam with the names there with those last two, I guess).
Check out some of these menu items: the fried pickle chips (PW's); grinder subs (Pizza) and footlong regionally-inspired dogs (Hot Dogs). To boot, there are smaller stands spaced in between that offer bags of roasted nuts, cotton candy, funnel cake, ice cream from Bruster's or Dippin' Dots.
Options for alcohol also abound, with Yuengling represented by its own stand and Pinnacle Bar serving wine, drinks, premium drinks, doubles and double premiums (!). True, that last will set you back $15, but you might pay the same at a bar, and at least you will have spent a little less than normal for food (cheesesteaks are the priciest item at $8).
To be completely honest, arena football has never really been my jam, but that doesn't mean everybody else in the place wasn't excited. As do their co-tenants - the ECHL's Gwinnett Gladiators - the Force really pull off their branding pretty well, and the attendees buy in.
As should be the case with indoor sports, the confines ratchet up the intimacy and intensity here significantly. There is a small upper bowl, but even up there, the sight lines are great; the dramatic lighting and uncluttered sidelines ensures that the on-field action is the focus of everyone in the building.
I found it a little odd that the cheerleaders were so far removed - they do their standard routines on the stage used for concerts at the Arena, which is a good 15 yards beyond the back of the endzone - but they do come onto the field during downtime, at least.
Rapidly-growing Gwinnett County gets more urban and developed every day, but when it comes down to it, this is still the suburbs. "Nightlife" within "walking distance" is very limited, and I stick the terms in quotes because what passes as such in this general area is different from your average cityfolks' definition.
For a few drinks, reasonably close and worth plugging are Arena Tavern and Marlow's Tavern; the same goal of sitting at the bar and imbibing can be accomplished at nearby locations of chains like Carrabba's or Frontera, but at least these offer some sort of sports-minded ambience.
If you're looking for a place to have a meal before or after, I'll tell you that I've been hearing more and more about Luciano's Ristorante Italiano; decently authentic and tastefully decorated.
Now, if you're OK driving a bit, you open up further options like the Tilted Kilt Pub & Eatery, California Dreaming and Jim 'n Nick's Bar-B-Q, all of which are but one exit up I-85 (or basically a block up Satellite Boulevard to Old Peachtree Road).
I was truly impressed by the noise factor in this place; I didn't think there were so many AFL diehards in my town - and maybe there aren't, maybe these people are just starved for football at this time of year, like me - but they were supporting the home team nonetheless.
Not too far behind me were a couple fellows banging drums like maniacs while the visitors were on offense; the crowd always stood on deep passes by Force QB Bryant Moniz; and folks were even responding to Blu, the mascot who tries to be both Gonzo from the Muppets and the Philly Phanatic, but comes up a good bit short of either.
As one might expect, families fill out a large portion of the seats - Gwinnett is a popular place to raise kids (I speak from my parents' experience), and the Arena makes for a good outing location these days. All that's not to say that a fun evening can't be had by a group of "bros," but it's something to take into consideration.
The aforementioned I-85 is the main artery closeby, and considering AFL games are held almost exclusively on weekends, traffic heading out of town (northeast) should not be much of a problem. Exit 107 (Sugarloaf Parkway) is the most direct route, though if you do anticipate any backup, 106 (Highway 120) or 109 (Old Peachtree) are viable backups.
Coming from the East, it's as simple as getting off 316 at Sugarloaf; from the North, Peachtree Parkway to McGinnis Ferry Road seems most likely. If you're making a longer trip - say, from Tennessee or Alabama - just ride your respective highway (that's 75 or 20) to 285 and wrap it around to 85.
The potential snag is with parking, as there is all of one entrance (from Sugarloaf) to the lots and deck. Thankfully, there is a light here to help regulate, and frequently an officer or two helps during the exiting process, but bottlenecking is a definite possibility, even if they do open up the back exit from the lot for the game you happen to attend.
This is always a somewhat subjective category, but even moreso in this case because arena football is so polarizing. I will judge it based on the level of an AFL fan here, though, as - judging by the spirit wear sported in the stands for both the Force and the visitors - pretty much everyone in the building was at least moderately dedicated.
The price points start quite low - $10 for upper bowl endzone, $12 for upper bowl sideline and $17 for lower bowl endzone. Of these, I'll take the second choice every day of the week, as the nets detract far too much from your view if you're seated behind them.
Then there's the lower bowl sideline option, which is what you really want; the question is, do you have $30 to drop (or maybe $100 for seats up against the wall)?
I'll say this: Most of the seats taken were in that section, and there were no empty fieldside seats; injury to one's self by players flying over the barriers is apparently a risk mitigated by the excitement for many fans.
There's not a whole lot of extras to the Georgia Force experience - sorry, coupons fluttering from the ceiling fails to excite - but I'll certainly give a point for the professionalism of the Arena staff and Force front office. No, this whole half-size field, artificial turf thing might not be for me, but it's no joke either, and neither is the AFL or its teams.
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2000 Satellite Blvd NW
Duluth, GA 30097
6555 Sugarloaf Pkwy
Duluth, GA 30097
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1630 Distribution Dr
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1103 Old Peachtree Rd
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