At first glance, the rawness of arena football doesn't seem like a good fit in a place like ultra-conservative Utah. Football-hungry Utahns bucked that trend when the Utah Blaze debuted in 2006. The team led the Arena Football League in home attendance that season with an average of 15,498 fans packing EnergySolutions Arena. The death and re-birth of the AFL, together with moving the Blaze to nearby Maverik Center and back again, appear to have altered - but not halted - the franchise's momentum.
The venue is known best as the home of the Utah Jazz, but fans needing their summer fix of football can find it at EnergySolutions Arena as well.
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Other than a handful of shuttered in-arena restaurants, the fare available during Blaze games is the same which is offered during Jazz games, with similar pricing. I honestly expected more stands to be closed, so it was nice to still have plenty of options.
The most common stand is "Fast Break," featuring all the usual suspects: hot dogs ($3-$4), nachos ($4.75), soft pretzels ($3.75), pretzel bites ($5.25), candy ($3.50), churros ($3.50), and popcorn ($5-$6).
Grill Works offers just what you'd expect: chicken tender baskets ($7), cheeseburgers ($6; add $1.25 for pastrami on top); bratwurst ($6); cheese or garlic fries ($4.25). Papa John's offers pizza for $6.50, and Cafe Ole; Express features Mexican fare from "walking tacos" for $5 to taco salads or nachos supreme for $8.50.
The longest line in the building belongs to Russell's Ice Cream, a local favorite offering cones or bowls for $5.75.
Being in Salt Lake City doesn't dilute the AFL experience. The Blaze embraces the edginess inherent in arena football with omnipresent heavy metal, Torch the Tiger and the Utah Blaze Dancers.
Plus, you can't very well have a team called the Blaze without a few pyrotechnics thrown in. Having different fireworks displays for each player introduced, however, was a bit much for me. It was likely also too much for those in the upper bowl who had to deal with an inordinate amount of pre-game smoke.
Across from ESA you'll find The Gateway, Salt Lake City's contemporary outdoor shopping center. You have lots of dining choices here - from national/regional names you know to places you may not see anywhere else. A solid choice here is Z Tejas, a southwestern grill (191 South Rio Grande; 1/2 mile from ESA). It's moderately priced, especially for The Gateway: Appetizers average about $9-$10; entrees range from $10-$16. You'll see plenty of fusion dishes, but I'll always go for their Santa Fe Smoked Chicken Enchiladas.
If The Gateway doesn't sound like your style, maybe Crown Burgers will. There are a handful of locations in the greater Salt Lake area, including one less than a half-mile from ESA (118 North 300 West). The joint's namesake, a cheeseburger topped with pastrami, is definitely tasty. However, I'll usually choose the French Dip or ribeye steak sandwich. Most choices range from $5-$10, but buying at least $14 of food earns you validated event parking in Crown Burger's lot.
Of the 7,997 announced fans in attendance, I'd say roughly 1/3 wore some kind of Blaze gear. The most intense fans are found in the end zones, known as the "Fire Pit." There you'll find face paint, loud smacking devices and vuvuzelas drowning out third downs. It took a bit of effort from the P.A. announcer to get the rest of the fans involved, but I was impressed by the collective noise level.
I also give the fans credit for sticking it out through a tough game for the hometown team. The visiting Arizona Rattlers led 72-25 after three quarters, but the majority of fans stuck around and still made noise in the fourth. I was pleasantly surprised that such a niche sport could keep the attention of these fans, even in a blowout.
Plenty of parking lots surround ESA, ranging from $3-$6. Personally, it's worth walking a few blocks to save a few bucks, but the choice is yours. Another option is Salt Lake County's light-rail system, TRAX, which has a stop at ESA's north end. If cost is your deciding factor, parking your own car may be the cheaper choice, given TRAX's regularly rising fees.
No matter the event, bathroom wait times are minimal at ESA. This was especially true at this game, even when I had to find a stall. Each restroom is spacious, as is the concourse.
Arena football may not be my personal cup of tea, but I can see how it can help fill a void for football-crazy fans during the summer. An $8 upper-bowl seat or a $10 upper end zone seat once or twice a season is reasonable for me, given the experience. Anything more, either monetarily or in frequency, is probably stretching it.
One point for the most unique national anthem experience I've seen. When the National Guard usually presents the colors, it's on the field. At this game, two Guardsmen rappelled from the ceiling, suspending the flag in midair. The anthem itself - played on electric guitar - left something to be desired, but presenting the flag in such a way was a highly memorable experience.
One point for the information screens in the concourse. I've never seen TV screens used to direct traffic in an arena before. Each screen lets you know the closest concessions and restrooms, even if they're behind you. A very helpful tool, especially for the infrequent visitor.
One point for the free program, done newspaper-style. Everything you need to know about the Blaze and the AFL is packed into these pages. Stacks of papers can be found at each entrance. This was a great way to get me up to speed on the team and the sport, as it would for any casual fan. After all, nothing's better than free.
The Blaze's pocket schedule declares the team is proud to again call EnergySolutions Arena home. I can see why after my experience there. While some may argue that the team's former home, Maverik Center, provides a more intimate experience, the perks of playing in an NBA-quality facility make the Blaze's return downtown a victory for the fans.
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118 North 300 West
Salt Lake City, UT 84103
191 S Rio Grande
Salt Lake City, UT 84101
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