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Official Review by Jason Bullock, Stadium Journey Regional Correspondent
If you are looking for a great college football experience, Harrisonburg, Virginia, is the destination for you. The home to James Madison University, this city of 50,000 is the location of a gem of a place to spend an autumn Saturday afternoon. Bridgeforth Stadium has been the home turf of the Dukes since 1975 and was originally named Madison Stadium. The current name was implemented in 1990, and is in honor of a former member of the JMU Board of Visitors. The original capacity was 5,200 and through two major expansions has increased to almost 25,000. A total investment of $90 million in 2010 brought this stadium up to the current state and included 17 suites, a club level, athletic training facility, and a parking deck. The architect for this stadium, HKS, Inc., is the same group that was involved in development of Arlington, Texas', Cowboys Stadium.
JMU has a relatively-short football history starting 40 years ago at Division III and moving up to Division I-AA (now called "Football Championship Subdivision") in 1980. The Dukes currently compete in the Colonial Athletic Association in the FCS and last won the conference title in 2008. James Madison brought home a National Championship in 2004 as a member of the Atlantic 10 Conference. Former Dukes that went on to star in the NFL include Gary Clark, Charles Haley, and Scott Norwood.
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".
There are four main concession stands located in the stadium, all on the west side concourse: Two on the lower level and two on the upper level. The first thing that stood out to me when walking up to the stand was the amount of staff they had working behind the counter. The staff that I interacted with was friendly, fast, and efficient. The line moves quickly, even during typically busy times like halftime.
Another detail that helps keep the line moving quickly, menu boards are large and easy to read. These stands offer your basic hot dogs ($4), popcorn ($5), and soft pretzels ($3.50), but if you are looking for variety, they have that too. You will find pizza, burgers, a veggie dog (nice option for vegetarian fans), and a kid's meal along with Italian sausage, BBQ sandwiches, and baked potatoes, which is not something you typically see at a football game, but fans were buying them! You will also find a few stand-alone carts in the end zone concourse that serve soda, pretzels, and cotton candy.
Coke products are served in a 32 oz. souvenir cup for $4.50, or a 22 oz. for $3.50. One option I took advantage of was a souvenir mug of hot chocolate for $5.25; a regular cup cost $2.75, so for a couple of bucks extra I have a reusable mug with the JMU logo. No alcohol is served in the stadium and no outside food or drinks are allowed. The overall quality of food was fair, but the speed of service and fair prices gave this an extra point in my book.
Entering the stadium, you get a feel of electricity and anticipation in the air as the fans get ready to cheer on the home team for the next three hours. I entered through Gate D that is right in between the two student sections at the eastern and northern parts of the stadium and were generally the loudest throughout the game. The JMU Marching Royal Dukes sit right behind the north end zone and entertain the crowd throughout the game. Multiple handicap seating options are available in the north end zone.
The stadium is laid out in a "U" shape with an athletic center behind the southern end zone. This is where the team enters and exits the field; they do not come close to the stands, so sitting at that end of the stadium will not increase your chance of interacting with the players. The home team bench is on the western side of the stadium, and the majority of the stadium's seats are located on this side. Club and suite levels can also be found on this side of the stadium. There are good sight lines throughout the stadium. Even sitting in the top concourse, I did not feel too far removed from the action. If being under covering and protected from the elements is important to you, Sections 211-214 Row T and up will keep you dry. Although they are corner seats, they still offer a good view of the game. The only drawback in these sections is the PA can sound muffled at times, which I did not experience in other sections of the stadium.
Seats in the reserved section are bench style with a back to them and are relatively comfortable. Student section and general admission seats do not come with backs, but you can bring your own stadium seat with you. There is a state-of-the-art scoreboard in the south end zone that offers live action during the game and displays up to date stats throughout the game. The quality of the scoreboard exceeds that of many FBS stadiums that I have attended. During the game, the Duke Dog mascot can be seen throughout the stadium and the cheerleaders rotate around the field keeping the crowd pumped up.
The stadium is located on-campus, so the surrounding neighborhood is your typical college scene. Walking to and from my car, there were plenty of security/police visible, creating a safe environment. There is a Buffalo Wild Wings located on U.S. Route 11 directly across from the garage where I parked that was packed before and after the game.
If you are staying overnight in Harrisonburg and heading south the next day, Mrs. Rowe's Family Restaurant in Staunton is a necessary stop for your breakfast or lunch. It is located right off Interstate 81 (Exit 222) about a 20-minute drive from JMU. Calling their food "home cooking" does not even do it justice; it will make you forget all about Grandma's dinners and the prices are reasonable. If you go, get the open-faced turkey sandwich covered with mashed potatoes and gravy and do not forget to take home some of their fresh pies, cookies, or a dozen rolls. Even if you are heading north, head south first and get some grub here!
These fans love their Dukes! They have passion for the game, they know the players on the field by name, and they do not need to be prodded by a scoreboard or PA announcer to cheer (or jeer) when appropriate. When "1st Down - JMU" is announced on the PA, a chorus of "Dooooookes" by the crowd follows it. Winning or losing, the crowd stays involved in the game and wears their emotions on their sleeves. There were a few visiting fans in my section and I did not hear a cross word spoken toward them the entire game.
One thing that caught me by surprise was how many fans left early. The game I attended was a double OT thriller won by the Dukes. During the whole second half, there was never more than a one score difference between the two teams. Yet, the crowd was noticeably less than it was in the first half, especially in the general admission sections. As the teams were heading into OT, I noted fans gathering their belongings and heading towards the gates. The weather was not unreasonable and I do not believe the President was in town, so I do not know what the big rush was. Those that remained were just as passionate as they had been since opening kickoff, but those that left missed an exciting end to the game and the quantity of empty seats was the difference between four and five stars in this category.
The stadium is located right off of I-81 and is very easy to get to. To park on-campus requires a pass. However, there are plenty of options off campus and they are free. The website offers excellent parking information. I recommend the Warsaw parking deck right off of US 11: It is right across the street from an entrance to the campus and is about a 10-minute walk to the stadium from there. There are also free shuttle buses that run to most of the satellite parking sites, but if you are not short on time, use your feet. You get a scenic view of the campus and it is probably quicker than waiting for the shuttle.
Your ticket will have a gate listed on it for you to enter; however, you can access your seat from any gate, so that is not a deal breaker if you go in the wrong one. The staff working the gates was efficient and got us through quickly. They scan each ticket, a plus for me as I like to keep my ticket stubs intact.
The concourse is very wide and was never too crowded, even after the game as people were filing out. Restrooms are plentiful and I would rate them as some of the cleanest that I have seen in any stadium, which was definitely appreciated!
General admission tickets are typically $20, while reserved will run you $25, although I was able to find some a little cheaper through the secondary market. With a good variety of food to choose from at decent prices and free parking, there is definite value to be found here. Fielding a consistently competitive team on the field increases that value and makes this a five-star category for Bridgeforth Stadium
When the Dukes score a touchdown or have another play of significance (e.g., block a punt), purple and gold streamers start flying from the stands. This is a unique way of celebrating the team's success and a great way to keep the fans involved.
The JMU band does a nice job of weaving their music through the game and puts on a nice halftime show. For fans that are deaf or hard of hearing, accessibility devices are available so those fans can enjoy the game, also; check with guest services on the lower concourse for more information.
Along the walls in the lower concourse are murals highlighting important milestones in JMU football history. There were some interesting facts to be found, and you will find a tribute to their 2004 National Championship team behind section 104.
Fans, students, and alumni should be proud of their team's stadium and the product they put on the field each Saturday. This is the best experience I have had in an FCS stadium to-date and look forward to returning soon to catch another game.
Member Review by JMUdukes2012 on Oct 23, 2012
5th-year Senior talking here. Wonderful stadium and atmosphere. Harrisonburg rests in the beautiful Shenandoah Valley and is a great place to visit. JMU studnets are one-of-a-kind. GO DUKES
Member Review by southernliberty on Oct 23, 2012
I am sure many who have visited the stadium will testify to how great the atmosphere is at Bridgeforth. I have been to several NCAA stadiums, including NFL stadiums and the game day experience is just as good, in some cases it is better than a few FBS game day experiences I have attended. I do wish the students would stay longer for games though. There are games though that they are there for the whole game and when they are, the atmosphere during the game is that much better.
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