Year after year, Irvine appears on the FBI's safest cities in America list, so sports fans would not expect much excitement in such calm surroundings. The University of California Irvine (UCI) Anteaters would like to prove that a lack of excitement is far from the truth.
Upon arriving at the Bren Events Center, one might think that he or she has arrived late for the contest. This is because before the game you will hear famous sound bites from the past over the PA system.
The arena is formally called the Donald Bren Events Center and received this moniker in 1988 when the chairman of the Irvine Company (real estate) donated $1.5 million. If you are looking for residence in Irvine, CA, at least one of the places you visit will be owned by the Irvine Company.
The multi-purpose, 90,000 square foot venue holds 4,984 for basketball and was built in 1987.
The Anteaters play in the Big West Conference and while they have won the regular season championship, they have yet to win the championship game and advance to the NCAA tournament. Their most well-known player is current Oklahoma City Thunder coach Scott Brooks, but the only retired number is the #44 of Kevin Magee. During the 1982 season, Magee led the team that was ranked as high as 19th in national polls.
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".
The food choices were not too exotic, but rather easy to find the single concession area. Some of the main entrees included a hot dog ($4), added chili/cheese ($1), pizza ($5), meatball sub ($5), chicken caesar salad ($6.50), or a bratwurst ($5).
The snacks included kettle corn ($5), popcorn ($3 or $5 depending on size), nachos ($3), churro ($2.50), pretzel ($2.50), extra cheese cup ($0.75), candy ($3), or a bag of chips ($2). If you were hoping for healthier snacks, a fresh fruit cup ($4) or a yogurt parfait ($4) is available.
As for the beverages, I was rather surprised to see alcoholic beverages served on campus. The options included imported beer ($8), domestic beer ($6.50), and wine (red or white $6).
Other options include Pepsi products ($3 or $4 depending on size), Gatorade ($3), coffee ($3), hot chocolate ($2), and bottled water. I was thrilled to see more reasonable prices here, namely on the bottled water.
The Bren Events Center gets amazingly loud for the size of the facility and the size of the crowd that was on hand for this evening's game. The first thing I noticed was the 7 banners, two for the Big West Championships and four to commemorate the NIT berths. Also between sections 111 and 112, you'll find the school's athletic hall of fame.
This band that sits at the far end of the facility with the cheer team was active, playing memorable tunes throughout the evening and remained engaged as the fans by distracting the opposing team's free throw players when the opportunity arose.
The team offers a variety of in-game promotions to keep things exciting. The In-N-Out Burger blind-fold game, Chipotle parachute toss, or a free-throw challenge (with a prize of $25 worth of bookstore bucks). Probably the most popular promotion however was when three cheerleaders delivered fresh pizzas to the fans. With a smaller crowd on hand, seemingly every fan thought they had a shot at the free pie, so they all were on their feet screaming!
The mascot is Peter the Anteater, which is one of the more clever mascots I've seen over the years. Unfortunately I didn't see Peter do much more than shake a few hands during the game. He was never on the floor during the cheers, nor did he do anything of substance during the game.
This is probably the most challenging part to assess during this review. There isn't much excitement in the form of tourism, restaurants, or bars in the immediate area. Not far away however, are the communities of Newport Beach, Laguna Beach, and Santa Ana which receive 35 million visitors annually.
One of the places you may try is the Steelhead Brewing Company. Here you'll find some unique microbrews along with a menu featuring burgers, pizza, pasta, and wings. People seem to like their Root Beer above all ease, which apparently took the establishment two years to develop.
The Anthill Pub and Grill is cleverly named for the college. The selection here is great with beer offerings such as Dogfish Head and Arrogant Bastard. While they have your typical pub food items, the claim to fame is the "Stoner Fries." These are part of a "secret menu," and are essentially a side of fries with salsa, guacamole, and jalapenos.
Ray's Pizza is probably the best pizza joint in the area. Offering New York style pizza, this place offers a rather simple menu on eight sandwiches, lasagna, and rigatoni. Hey, stick with what you're good at, huh?
Other popular local spots include Le Diplomate Cafe, Gen Grill, Golden Spoon, Britta's Cafe, and the Veggie Grill. Some of the more common chains such as In-N-Out Burger, Jack-In-The-Box, and KFC are also in the area.
I couldn't really get a good sense of the fans during the game I experienced. I didn't notice a lot of Anteater gear and some of the opposing fans were often dominating the noise levels.
The fans did seem to react in a big way to the appropriate plays and despite being down late in the game, the fans persisted with the noise.
Some of the highlights I saw from the fans included the "Rip "Em Eaters" hand sign which included lifting the pointer and pinky finger and making a "snout" with the middle, ring, and thumb.
The fans would also chant "Zot, Zot, Zot" after a made free throw. I couldn't immediately figure out why, but apparently it is because it is the sound made by the anteater's tongue in the comic strip "B.C."
Other chants included "Let's Go Eaters" and "U-C Ir-vine." When the opposing players were shooting a free throw, a cheerleader would yell "No #2 has no friends" and everyone else would yell "no friends." After a traveling call, you'd hear "Walk walk walk"Ś toooo many steps."
All in all, I was impressed by the fans engagement in the game. There was not a large crowd, but they made some significant noise and added some fun to the atmosphere.
As a resident of Southern California, the access was my favorite part of the experience. It seems that nearly all entertainment options in the region are a challenge to get to, but the Bren Events Center presents one of the more accessible ones.
If you are coming from Los Angeles, you'll take the 5 South to the 55 South to the 73 South and exit on University Drive. From Long Beach, take the 405 South to the 73 South and take the same exit. San Diego and southern residents should take the 405 N to the University/Jeffery Exit. Lastly, if you are coming from the east, take the 91 W to 55 South and take the same University exit. Although the directions do mention the 73, you will not have to pass the toll booths that 73 has become most well-known for.
The parking structure is found on Mesa Road and offers parking for 1,300 vehicles. Spots are $10 each, but you get a voucher for a free 24 oz fountain soda at Wahoo's, Quiznos, Bene Pizza & Pasta, Panda Express, Greens to Go, Phoenix Food Court, BC's Food Court, Cafe Med Food Court, or Med Ed Cafe.
With so many tourist destinations in the surrounding areas, plenty of hotels are nearby for anyone traveling to see the game. Even better, the John Wayne Airport (also known as Orange County Airport) is just three miles away, so you don't have to go far if you are flying in.
The two-level facility only provides a single restroom for each gender that was plainly visible. Depending on your seat, you may have to walk to the opposite end of the arena to get to your specific restroom. The restroom was sizable, but I'd be interested to see how it handles a larger crowd.
I think you'll have to weigh what you're looking for in a college basketball experience when determining if you want to check out UCI basketball. If you want a mess of fans, lots of traffic, and more expensive tickets, this probably isn't for you. If you prefer a more intimate college basketball experience, this might just be one of the best places. There won't be a lot of bells and whistles at an Anteater game, but with prices under $15, it's a worthwhile night out. Adult Reserved seats are $14, Adult General Admission is $10 and Youth (17 and under) are $7.
The part that could make it a really enticing investment is that with a smaller crowd and so many in-game promotions, a large percentage of fans walk away with a prize.
In front of the east entrance, you can get your photo taken with the giant anteater statue/shrine. While the anteater appears to be to scale, it is perched atop a three foot block that brings it up to torso level for most adults. The plaque below it tells of how the school received its nickname and why it makes the "Zot Zot Zot" sound.
The facility has a retractable roof and retractable seating, two aspects I would have never guessed with a facility built in 1987. It also boasts an outdoor patio known as the Berry Family Terrace. This area can hold up to 400 people and with Irvine's beautiful weather is a great place to get away during the game.
The 1,500 acre campus is covered with over 11,000 trees, making it rather green year round. Originally from the Mid-Atlantic and Midwest regions of the country, I was shocked to see locust trees with all of their leaves outside of the arena in late December.
If you are a student of the school, be sure to check out the annual event of "Midnight Magic," which is the first day basketball teams are eligible to practice. The Athletics department hosts a party for students and provides the food and music. Once midnight strikes, the men's and women's teams are introduced followed by scrimmages, a three-point, and slam dunk contest.
Throughout the arena, you can find several Purell hand-sanitizer stations. It seems rather elementary, but is a nice added element to have.
Though UC Irvine may not be one of the more well-known schools in Southern California, it certainly plays home to a beautiful campus and intimate basketball facility.
I would like to see a more inspiring entrance sign to the arena and more fans in blue seats, but otherwise I felt it was a nice experience. It did present an interesting dynamic in that it felt like a high-school basketball gym, but added the professional atmosphere to the game with all of the promotions. I tip my cap to whomever comes up with all of the promotions because they were extremely fun and well thought out for the size of the crowd.
There are certainly a lot of entertainment options in Irvine and the surrounding areas, but stop in and check the Bren Events Center out; I promise it will present a rather fun evening.
Follow Drew's journeys through Southern California on twitter @Big10Drew.
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