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Official Review by Paul Swaney, Stadium Journey Co-Founder
Cincinnati is often thought of as being a baseball town, first and foremost. With no NBA team, basketball plays the third fiddle to football in the town as well. Thinking back on the tradition that the Bearcats have established, some may debate on how to prioritize the three sports. All I know for sure, is that this is a sports town, and the University reflects that.
With all of the athletic facilities in one central location, it's pretty easy to figure out where you need to go to see a Bearcats game. Marge Schott Stadium (baseball) and Nippert Stadium (football) are clustered nearby, along with an indoor practice facility, running track, soccer field, and tennis courts.
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's not a lot to get excited about as you peruse the concession stands. The most exciting item at most vendors is the Chili Cheese Fries ($4.75). Standards include cheeseburger, super dog or nachos ($3.75 each). The three P's of stadium food are also available: Pizza ($3), popcorn ($3), and pretzels ($3.25).
I was surprised to find alcohol for sale at the game, as the venue is on campus. Most stands offer either Budweiser or Bud Light ($6 for a large), but I also found a nod to the city's German heritage with Warsteiner and Dunkel beers. Pepsi is the soda vendor here, with a large costing you $5. Hot chocolate or coffee can be found on days when the weather necessitates something to warm you up ($2).
In one corner you'll find the City BBQ stand, my choice if you need to fill up. Choose from the pulled pork sandwich or pulled chicken sandwich ($6), or try the beef brisket ($6.50). In any case, be sure to add a side of macaroni and cheese ($2).
There isn't a whole lot of buzz leading up to tipoff. I spent the entire afternoon walking around town, and did not hear one person talking about the impending game. The crowd meandered in, with many still looking for their seat when the ball was tipped. It turned out that this was the calm before the storm. The fans were great throughout, and I appreciate the fairly low tech presentation of the game. My only complaint is that I wished the pep band played a little more often.
The first level of seating is a folding set of 25 or so rows of chairback seating. The leg room is adequate, and there are no cupholders. In the upper sections, the first 15 rows are black plastic seats, permanently fixed. The leg room is above average, but there are still no cupholders. This would be my recommendation as the place to sit in this arena, with section 205 being the best bet. Rows 16-31 in the upper section are red plastic bleachers, and feel a very long ways from the floor. The price is right, but the view is not great.
The campus is really beautiful, and I was lucky enough to be there on a unseasonably warm day, which seemed to make everyone just a bit happier and make the beauty of the campus stand out. It's worth your time to walk a bit, and make sure to find the statue of Oscar Robertson.
As you begin to make your way into the surrounding streets, there are some areas that could be described as a bit sketchy. If you want to get your obligatory Cincinnati chili fix, then head over to Vine Street. At Gold Star Chili, you can get Spaghetti Three Way (spaghetti, chili, and shredded cheese). I had never had this concoction before and rather liked it.
Over on McMillan Avenue, you can find a great selection of interesting bars and restaurants. Within just a couple of blocks you can find Chinese, Thai, Japanese, Vietnamese, Mexican, Italian, and Hungarian restaurants. This is the area I would recommend spending time before or after games if you have some extra time.
I stopped in to Mac's Pizza & Pub, and spent some time in a comfortable booth trying Mac's signature pizza (double pepperoni, sausage, and jalapeno). They have a good selection of beer, including local and microbrew options. There's also a shuffleboard table, one of my favorite tavern pastimes. It's definitely a comfortable spot to spend a few hours.
If you're looking for a more traditional sit down type restaurant, head over to Lenhardt's & Christy's, a German-Hungarian restaurant that is third generation owned and has been in town since 1955. I had the chicken paprikash and spaetzle. I really liked the sign that greeted me when I entered, "Under Old Management." The place may be old, but they have great service, and you could taste the love in the food.
If you are looking for some predictable choices, you can find Potbelly's, Buffalo Wild Wings, Chipotle, and Five Guys Burgers all within easy walking distance of Fifth Third Arena.
Student sections bookend the floor with bleachers under each basket. The bookend action helps to make the building extra loud during key moments. There's a decibel meter on one end of the floor to help people know just how loud it is. The pep band sits with the students, but really doesn't make much of an impact on the experience (even though they seem like a pretty talented group when they get the opportunity).
Overall, the crowd is a bit slow to arrive, but is very much engaged in the game throughout. I was really surprised to see so many empty seats at tipoff, but by the first media timeout, the arena had filled in nicely.
There are several parking garages near the stadium. I parked in the Corry Street Garage, where it cost me $9. From there, it was an easy walk to the arena.
Restrooms are less than adequate, and you would be well advised to skip out of the half a couple minutes early to avoid the long lines. There are insufficient stalls and urinals, and the facility itself is less clean than I would like to see.
There are a lot of stairs that you will need to navigate once inside the arena, so please keep that in mind if you have trouble moving around.
Lower level seats cost $32, and the upper level seats with chairbacks go for $29. There's a steep price drop for the upper level bleacher seats ($12), but I'll warn you, they're a long ways up. This may be one case where it's worth it to shell out the extra dough.
Concession prices are decent, but you can probably plan on spending somewhere around $50 per person for the whole experience. That feels a little expensive, but this is Big East basketball, so you are getting a good value, depending on the opponent you see. My advice is to look at the schedule early, and find a top tier conference opponent (with regional opponents like Louisville or West Virginia being the best experience).
One extra point for the opportunity to sit in a building with two NCAA Championship banners. Be sure to stop next door in the Richard E. Lindner Center, where you'll find a nice display of significant trophies, including the two championship trophies from the 1961 and 1962 seasons.
Another extra point for the actual Bearcat that was on hand for the game from the nearby Cincinnati Zoo. I didn't even realize that a Bearcat was a real animal prior to the visit. And even though the Cincinnati athletic teams aren't named for the actual Bearcat (found in Southeast Asia), it was still a cool thing to see. In speaking to the zookeeper on hand, the animal makes an appearance at many home games so take the time to walk the concourse if you're interested in exotic animals.
The statue of the Big O is also worth an extra point in my book. He is a bit of a transcendent figure in the sport, and certainly in the city of Cincinnati.
Finally, (and this is a bit of a freak occurrence, but also a tribute to the fans) one extra point for the halftime performance by a group of girls and jump ropes. They were absolutely amazing, and the crowd showed their support by giving them a standing ovation.
I really enjoyed my trip to Cincinnati, and would recommend making the trip to anyone within a reasonable driving distance, in the city for business, or just an avid college basketball fan. If you're just going to come to town to watch the opposing team, then you should find plenty to do.
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