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Official Review by Jim Dietrich, Stadium Journey Regional Correspondent
What's the first thing you think of when you hear about Boca Raton? Thoughts of 1980's Florida living conjure themselves in my head: pastels, throngs of AARP retirees, and their associated rolling behemoths made by Buick, Cadillac, and Oldsmobile. I especially could only think of "Boca" as the place Jerry Seinfeld's parents retired to - and where they caused trouble to the homeowners' association of their community - in his eponymous sitcom from the '90s.
So, when I was researching for Division I basketball-playing schools, the absolute last place in Florida I expected to find one was in this geriatric playground. Florida Atlantic University is situated on 850 meticulously cared-for acres near the heart of Boca, and at the heart of this gem of a campus is the Athletic Complex, the FAU Baseball Stadium, the athletics program's track, and - of course - the FAU Arena (the school's new on-campus football venue, FAU Stadium, is just to the east of the rest of the sports facilities). Built in 1984 and remodeled in 2007, it's the home of both the men's and women's basketball teams, as well as the volleyball team. Will the arena be as beautiful and functional as the rest of the campus?
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".
Food here is your typical fare of hamburgers, hot dogs, nachos, and popcorn, though there is a separate kiosk that serves pizza that looks like it is being provided by a local establishment. Made-to-order right in front of you with a small pizza oven right behind the kiosk, it was reasonably-priced for the small size you got.
What drew me away from my food-of-choice like a moth to the flame, however - and gave bonus points - was a Rita's Water Ice kiosk. A staple of my diet when growing up in the Delaware Valley (along with cheesesteaks, soft pretzels, and scrapple), if you have a Rita's near you, you understand my obsession; those of you that don't, however, are missing out. For those that don't know, Rita's Water Ice (or Italian Ice if you're not from Philly) serves water/Italian ice, which is ice with the flavoring and color frozen into it, whereas a sno-cone has the sugar and color poured over the top after the fact. This makes the ice much smoother and more flavorful. They also serve frozen custard (soft-serve ice cream that's creamier and more decadent) and various creations of both the custard and water ice mixed.
While this little kiosk only had mango, pineapple, and cherry (I chose cherry), it was enough to satiate my cravings until my next visit to the closest one to my house, 9 miles away.
As I said in the opening, the arena, while 27 years old, is just 4 years removed from a $9 million renovation, and believe me it shows. From the high-quality of the outdoor facade as well as the seating areas, this arena - though considered small with only seating for 5,000 - is oozing beauty and functionality. Added in the renovation: a team store staring right at you when you come in the main entrance, new scoreboards, new seats, 4 skyboxes in the south end, new audio system, and pretty much anything else you can imagine.
The only issues I do have are the audio system was a little too loud (it was giving me a headache) for the size of the venue, and the scoreboard was actually on the north-end wall and not hanging over center court, a place I have been accustomed to looking as I looked up numerous times to keep track of the score only to find ventilation ducts.
Well, despite my preconceptions at first, Boca is far from the Golden Girls lifestyle I pictured: high-end cars, high-end shops, high-end restaurants and bars, Boca is like South Beach, but without the pretense of fake money and fake bodies: the cash and bodies are quite real here.
That said, this beautiful campus near the middle of the city is surrounded, sadly, by strip malls, albeit filled with higher-end restaurants and shops. If you have money, Boca can be a great place. And even if you don't have money, the Atlantic Ocean is ten minutes from campus, so that's always worth a plus.
I arrived early to see if there was anyway to get my ticket early to get some empty-venue shots. Unfortunately, that was not allowed, but I did get to see something I hadn't experienced at the other college basketball venues I've reviewed: they were tailgating! And I just don't mean one group of guys getting drunk and throwing a ball around; these were bona fide tailgaters, complete with grills and the works.
That passion came into the arena like a freight train, as these fans were some of the best I've experienced since the Amway Center, and here are examples why:
- During player introductions, every opposing player apparently "SUCKS!"
- Every opposing team possession was greeted with a chorus of "BOOOOOOO!"
- Every Owls possession brought about either "Let's Go Owls!!!" or "Red...Blue...F-A-U!!!"
- A family-unfriendly chant rhyming with "Cruel Spit" erupting expressing displeasure with the refereeing
And yes, the above may all be family "un-friendly", but they are beyond ace and oh, so worth it!
The most surprising thing, however, is how knowledgeable these fans are. I don't mean that disparagingly, but they knew something I didn't even know. Every time Raymone Andrews from their opponent that night, University of Louisiana-Lafayette, touched the ball, the crowd would chant "Wea-sel!!! Wea-sel!!!" After asking the people I was sitting around, they weren't even sure, though the only thing they could think of was Andrews, a graduate of nearby St. Thomas Aquinas High School in Fort Lauderdale, betrayed the local school by going to Louisiana-Lafayette.
In any case, they were highly-educated in the finer intricacies of Owls basketball, and that made for an amazing experience.
Non-students were a little more subdued, though they were still lively when necessary. If they were as non-stop as the student section, this could have easily been a 5, probably even a 6.
The campus itself is about as centrally located in the area as humanly possible: located less than five minutes from all three main north-south routes in the area - Florida's Turnpike, Interstate 95, and U.S. Route 1 - access to and from the centrally-located arena on campus is a breeze. Parking is also plentiful, which is free for students, $5 for non-students.
There are two sets of bathrooms, located on either side of the main concourse where the concessions and team store are located. The main concourse is kind of crowded, but definitely functional, where the stairways to the upper levels are wide and easily navigable.
The Owls currently sit on-top of the Sun Belt Conference and are on pace to take their first Sun Belt championship since moving there from the Atlantic Sun (where it won the conference title in 2002) in 2006, so the team is good. WIth as much recruiting potential this arena and this beautiful campus afford, they should remain on the top of the conference for years to come.
Since the renovations, they have turned this into the place-to-be for college basketball, so you will not be disappointed with any match here, even if your team loses.
Speaking of having money, do your parents have their own private plane and want to come see your game? Well, you're in luck, as general aviation Boca Raton Airport is right next to the arena. I found this out the hard way when, talking with the lady in the ticket booth, I heard what sounded like a jet engine next to my head. Sure enough, that was a private jet taking off yards away. If you're wealthy, it's quite convenient, for sure.
Other, more attainable extras include great giveaways of cars and pizzas that day, its proximity to the other sporting venues on campus, and the fact this is, quite frankly, one of the most beautiful urban campuses I've seen. That last fact alone makes it more than enough reason to come here for a game.
The Boca of old (and old-people) is long gone. As evidenced by this campus and the surrounding area, the younger generations are here to stay in this beautiful city. Florida Atlantic University has a lot to be proud of, but this arena is toward the top of that list.
The fans are rabid, the building is fresh and new, and the team is winning, which shows everywhere in the neighborhood. This building (and this campus as a whole) should be on every NCAA basketball lovers' to-do list, though bringing the kids, unless you're a liberal parent, should be under parental discretion.
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9858 Glades Rd
Boca Raton, FL 33434
2399 N Federal Hwy
Boca Raton, FL 33431
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