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Official Review by Brandon Gee, Stadium Journey Regional Correspondent
Opened in 2008, BB&T Arena ushered in the new era of Northern Kentucky Norse basketball. The school announced its intentions to move the school’s athletic programs from the Division II level, where they had great success, up to Division I. However, that era came a bit later than expected after the arena proved a bit too nice for the Ohio Valley Conference.
Luckily, the Atlantic Sun would step up and accepted NKU months later in December 2011. After playing three of the NCAA-required four probationary seasons in the A-Sun, including 2015 where the conference allowed the Norse to play in the conference tournament earlier than required, the Norse announced the surprising news that the school was abruptly moving its teams to the midwest-based Horizon League for the 2015-2016 season.
Now in a conference that aligns better geographically, NKU aims to hit the ground running as they finish out their probation and become eligible for the Horizon’s automatic bid and the NCAA tournament in Spring 2017.
As the new kids on D-I block, can the Norse make a name for themselves in an area rich with historic college basketball programs?
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With smaller crowds for now, the arena has one main concession stand open in the corner outside section 108. It's a small menu with the basics like burgers, hot dogs, Papa John's pizza, popcorn, and nachos. Prices are slightly higher than expected at a small college, but still in line with most arenas ($4-$8 for most items).
Like the other Cincinnati-area schools, NKU serves alcohol at its on-campus arena with Budweiser and Bud Light on draft ($7 for 20 oz) at the main concession stand and also at a smaller beer-specific stand outside sections 105 and 106. The main stand does offer a couple premium beers (also $7), including cans of Stella Artois (16 oz pour), and an area beer in Cougar Bait (an American Blonde Ale; 12 oz pour) from Lexington, Kentucky's Country Boy Brewing.
On the student section side, there's a small stand without beer sales tucked behind section 101. On the open platform above the seats there's a small ice cream stand.
I'm assuming there's a contingency plan for when the upper deck seats are used but even now there could probably be something done to get the line at the main stand moving quicker. Observing the stand outside of halftime showed the lines still backed up, blocking the concourse path.
Designed in part by local firm GBBN Architects and 360 (now HOK Sport), seating at BB&T Arena is configured for 9,400 with a complete lower bowl and a 3/4 upper deck. The seating bowl offers great views from every angle. The place is modern, bright and comfortable and is one of the nicer venues among mid-major programs..
Like many basketball-centric schools, BB&T Arena serves as not just the home of the men's and women's basketball programs, but also as the spiritual home of all the university's athletic programs. This is exemplified in the NKU Athletics Hall Of Fame near the arena's main entrance on the north end. All of the school's championships and star players from the Division II era are recorded here. It really shows just how successful the school was and how it aided their ambition to step up to the Division I level. In their time as a Division II power since the early 70s until 2012, Norse athletic teams racked up 50 conference titles in the Great Lakes Valley Conference, 25 NCAA regional championships and three national titles. The trophies spill out into another case in the concourse.
The move to the Horizon League is a definite positive for the school. In the Atlantic Sun, NKU was the northernmost school, which put the outdoor sports at a disadvantage versus the rest of the southern schools. Previously, there was only one school within a 5-hour drive, with most teams centered in the southeast. Now, seven of nine Horizon League teams are within that distance and the closest (Wright State) is only an hour away in Dayton. As well, the league signed a deal to locate its men's basketball tourney to Detroit's Joe Louis Arena and over to the new Red Wings arena in 2018.
The move to the Horizon League should aid the atmosphere in the coming years with rival fans being able to travel to NKU easily.
As crowds increase hopefully the school will consider moving the inflatables outside of the arena area and give that space to the students or some sort of standing perch. It is odd to see that stuff taking up space while the game is going on.
The campus was built in the early 1970s, and the architecture reflects the concrete brutalist-inspired structures popular at that time, but the campus is also being augmented with modern glass and steel buildings like Griffin Hall. NKU is still very much a commuter campus, so there's not much life on it outside of class hours, though the university has put effort in growing that.
The surrounding town of Highland Heights is a car-centric suburb. Along with the grocery and drugstores, there are a number of shops and restaurants that dot the strip malls along Alexandria Pike (US 27). There are some decent spots nearby like local favorite Frisch's and fast casual chains like Chipotle and Smashburger.
It is natural that NKU's crowds are going to be smaller for the near future. You don't build fan loyalty overnight and the school is still in the nascent years of its D-I era. Add in that they're fighting for attention in a region crowded with college basketball from the likes of Kentucky, Louisville, Cincinnati, and Xavier and it's quite the uphill fight for the young program.
Nonetheless, it is still a bit disappointing to see the lack of student turnout. Perhaps the oversized student section exacerbates things, but the empty bleachers are surprising. In fairness, along with fighting to get locals to care and become invested in Norse basketball, NKU is trying to shift away from being a commuter school, and currently has only 16% of its 15,000 students in university-related housing.
NKU is located about seven miles south of downtown Cincinnati, Ohio. The campus is quite easy to reach as it sits near the intersection of Cincinnati's beltway (I-275) and Kentucky SR-471, which starts downtown as a spur from I-71. From the city's airport in Hebron, KY it's just 15 minutes on 275E to the campus.
After turning on Nunn Drive or using the 3 Mile Road/University Drive exit from 275 (East only), the NKU Soccer Stadium and the arena are the first pieces of the campus you'll encounter.
Parking is simple as the main Welcome Center garage sits next to the arena across University Drive along with a couple of surface lots. From the garage second level, there's an elevated walkway straight to the arena's main entrance that also serves as one of the campus' major visual landmarks.
The surface lots next to the arena, Lot O, are generally reserved for donors and premium ticket holders with the exception of accessible parking spaces. There is also designated accessible parking in the surface lots next to the garage.
Tickets are $10 ($12 day of game) and parking is $5, which has to be one of the best sports deal in this area. Add in some snacks and a group of four can have a night out for around $70 total. With the school's investment in the program, the Norse should continue to improve on the court, and with time should hopefully turn into a decent mid-major team.
While this review was based on a men's game, I'd advise basketball fans to look at attending a women's game, as well. The women's team has historically been the more successful of the two, winning two of the school's three national titles, and continues to fare better in the D-I transition.
One point for the Norse nickname and theme. It's a unique choice amongst Division I schools and the school has done a nice job of utilizing Norse imagery to add to the school's sports culture and atmosphere. Even with the smaller crowd, you'll still see a number of students and fans wearing Viking hats and the school mascot, Victor E. Viking, is all over the place. As well, the upper level seating is divided into the Thunder and Lightning Decks.
One point for the move to the Horizon League. The A-Sun was a means to an end in the transition to Division I, but the Horizon offers many benefits as the school wraps up its probationary stage and works toward that eventful NCAA tourney berth.
One point for the Hall Of Fame. It shows that NKU has been excelling at sports long before the arena was built and provides major context to the history of Norse athletics.
There are the makings here for a great basketball atmosphere but it's going to take time and, really, stakes. There are tons of schools that would love to have a facility this nice and the Norse fans will hopefully come around and make this a tough place for teams to play. I'm looking forward to seeing what the crowds look like here in a couple seasons when the Norse are fighting for Horizon League tournament position and have a shot at the NCAA's.
Member Review by Jordan_Baer on Mar 19, 2013
Opened in 2008, BB&T Arena, formerly known as the Bank of Kentucky Center, has taken the Northern Kentucky University Athletic Department to a whole new level - The NCAA’s Division I level. Due to the construction of BB&T Arena, NKU’s entrance into Division I from the Division II Great Lakes Valley Conference was temporarily delayed when the Norse were rejected by the Ohio Valley Conference due to the conference’s members fearing the Norse would have an unfair recruiting advantage because of their new luxurious arena. NKU was eventually accepted by the Atlantic Sun Conference where they posted a .500 record in their first year.
With a seating capacity of 9,400, the BB&T Arena dwarfs the Norse’ old home, Regents Hall, while providing all the bells and whistles of a modern NCAA Division I arena such as suites, club seats, and courtside seats. These amenities have also allowed the facility to host other events such as concerts, the Division II Elite 8, and an indoor football team that was known as the Kentucky River Monsters.
Member Review by dlee7674 on Apr 04, 2013
I have lived in the Northern Kentucky area for almost a decade and have seen NKU grow a lot. The Bank of Kentucky Center (BOK) is a huge upgrade from the very small Regents Hall. It is a legitimate Division I facility that would fit with a school twice its size. While there is not much of a neighborhood vibe around campus yet, the road system is easy to navigate and there is adequate parking. The food is above average and the occasional dollar beer nights are fun. The fans are hit or miss, there seems to consistently be around 2500-3000 people a game but the student section does not always show up. That being said I have seen a few games where they get several hundred students and they can be very active. This is something that will hopefully build up over time as they develop a fanbase as a Division 1 program. The tickets are dirt cheap and are free to students, combined that with the fact that the basketball team is actually pretty good makes it well worth the price of admission.
2611 Alexandria Pike
Highland Heights, KY 41076
200 Cross Roads Blvd
Cold Springs, KY 41076
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