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Official Review by Jim Dietrich, Stadium Journey Regional Correspondent
I've been to a few professional-grade arenas in my life, most notably the Wells Fargo Center, Amway Center, and Tampa Bay Times Forum. These arenas are built on grand scales as they're meant to be the main, versatile arena for their respective metropolitan areas, able to host both hockey and monster truck rallies, as well as the occasional Miley Cyrus concert and the circus (sometimes, those are one-in-the-same). They all usually have the same distinguishing features: large upper decks, concourses that wrap around the entire building, and enough concession stands to make you 10 pounds heavier before you leave.
The Jacksonville Veterans Memorial Arena has none of the above.
Don't get me wrong, this isn't necessarily a bad thing, but it did throw me off that these things which I've taken for granted to appear in any building billing itself as the city's main indoor venue were quite visibly missing. Though, after further research, it makes sense - at least for the horseshoe upper-deck that doesn't have any west-side access - why it was built as such. Jacksonville may be the largest city in Florida, but one of the smaller metro areas in the state. How is that possible?
Back in 1968, Duval County and Jacksonville decided to merge into one entity (a few small already-incorporated cities were exempt), so the state's largest city and the country's 13th-largest city, as well as largest-by-area city, was formed. Because the surrounding counties are sparsely populated, however, the metro area is actually smaller than that of even Austin, TX; Hampton Roads (Virginia Beach/Norfolk), VA; Providence, RI; and Las Vegas, the four largest metros with no sports in the "Big 4" leagues. Thus, a full-sized arena really wasn't warranted when it was built. Its size doesn't necessarily make it inferior, just more of a perfect metaphor for the eccentricity that is Jacksonville. The building itself, however, is another matter.
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".
As I said in the opening, the amount of concessions is kind of low for a professional arena. Even worse, it's even more anemic for a Dolphins game, but this is both necessary and welcome, as there's no need to open anymore than 2 stands, one on each side of the arena. In this case, there was only one section open to the public: the main section serves your typical fare - hot dogs, popcorn, nachos - all at average prices. The other side of the arena houses the private "EverBank Club"; more on this later.
The snack that was pleasing to find, however, was a little cart that sold cinnamon-glazed almonds, cashews, and pecans. They were a tad pricey ($5 for the size of a large ice cream cone you'd by at a grocery store's freezer case), but they were quite good and worth every penny.
I have to be honest: it was quite moribund. As much as the announcer, band, and cheerleaders would try to pump the crowd up, you can only make what seemed like 1,000 people yell loud so much. This is no fault of the school however, as it's just a large arena serving an otherwise-small school. I can imagine if a school like Florida, Central Florida, or Duke were in-town, though, that place would be electric, especially with the wonderful acoustics throughout.
That said, points off go to two glaring things I noticed; the scoreboard and the quality of the stadium itself. This arena was built in 2003, and from the outside it looks even newer; the outside façade of glass and brick is absolutely beautiful. However, the seats are kind of beat-up already (with whole sections of two or three seats easily wiggled back-and-forth with one hand) and the interior, despite the excellent lighting, is still kind of dark and depressing.
The biggest flaw I couldn't get out of my mind the entire time, however, is the scoreboard. I've been to older arenas (as both the SP Times Forum and Wells Fargo Center were built in 1996) that had more advanced scoreboards when they were opened than this arena's, which is on more par with the now-defunct Spectrum in Philadelphia from the 1970s. Poor-sized TV, basic digital scorekeeping, and no-frills, its prominent placement high above center court is seemingly anachronous in this otherwise new venue.
This was, quite frankly, the most surprising disappointment of the bunch. It's located within walking distance of downtown, the St. John's River, and the other stadiums of Greater Jax. Yet, other than the Jacksonville Landing - a retail and dining mall on the north bank of the river - the only other thing to do before or after a game is...well, pray.
There were 5 church spires I counted from the ground and the glass overlooks from the 100 level viewing perches. Though I didn't catch the name of most, the one that's literally in your face is Old St. Matthew's, which is now the home to the Historical Society. Go out the front gate and you truly can't miss it; it's nestled in the same section as the Baseball Grounds of Jacksonville, with EverBank Field looming in the background. Not that I'm saying this is a bad thing, but the juxtaposition of such old and new, especially in a section of the city seemingly reserved for entertainment, is really unusual and unique.
I feel bad giving this kind of score because the people that did show were as loud as can be in a 15,000 seat arena holding about 1,000 that day; that is to say it was about on-par with a cough in a library. It's not the school's fault, though: it's a small private school of 3,600 students, so even if every single enrolled student and their parents showed, the arena would still be pretty lifeless. They are simply victims of circumstance playing in a building five sizes too big for their program; a building more-to-scale would have helped immensely.
The student section was able to hold about 80, but only 15-20 seats were occupied. They were doing their best to get the rest of the crowd fired-up, even with a group of 6 guys coming out shirtless with "J" and "U" painted on their chests, screaming as loud as they could. I admire their enthusiasm, even if it made me feel worse for the team and seeming lack of noise from anyone else there.
The brightest point was the extreme ease of ingress/egress Jacksonville has built around its sports complex. Close to Interstates 10 and 95, U.S. Routes 1 and 90, and four of the world-famous bridges Jax is known for, getting to the arena, parking, and leaving are all a breeze. Lot Z is free parking during Dolphins games, so make sure you seek it out; it's right across Duval Street from the venue, so it'll be easy to find.
For all its flaws, the arena has copious amounts of bathrooms and very wide concourses - except for the ones upstairs. The 300s are closed for these games; however, I went up there to take a peak around and found extremely narrow (maybe 10 feet across, tops) hallways along the north and south 300s. I'm only judging how it would be at a Dolphins game so these didn't affect the score, but take notice if you go to any other type of activity: it's not for the claustrophobic up there.
The only thing I did mark off for was the misplaced EverBank Club, a private club right smack in the southern part of the 100s concourse. It makes walking around the arena impossible without a ticket for that otherwise-upscale seating area.
The Dolphins do have a long basketball history in Division I, with their greatest season being 1969-70, where they lost the National Championship game to UCLA. They have been to the NCAA Tourney five times total, most recently 1986.
If you are a Jax U student or alum, I recommend going. If you're a student or alum of the school they're playing that day, I recommend going. If you're just a casual basketball fan that's not trying to visit every arena in Division I, don't go out of your way to come here, though you won't be too disappointed if you do.
They did give away t-shirts to anyone who wanted them as you walked in, so that's a plus. The views of the city and the St. John's are unparalleled from the numerous overlooks built into the arena. Also, a public art project surrounding the arena called "Talking Continents" by Jaume Plensa features seven kneeling human figures on tall pedestals placed randomly around the grounds. Though I wasn't there late enough to see this, they apparently light up, as well.
One cool feature for the fans of college football is the Jacksonville Sports Hall of Fame in the grand foyer. On display is memorabilia and a pictorial history of big sporting events in the area, most notably the Gator Bowl and the Florida-Georgia Game (more commonly known as "The World's Largest Cocktail Party"). This is a must-see for fans of teams that have ever played in the Gator Bowl, as well as Gator/Bulldogs alum.
Sadly, the Jacksonville Veterans Memorial Arena is offensive in some unforgiving ways, ways that are well out of the control of the Dolphins' organization: a long-outdated scoreboard, shoddy seating, an obnoxious black curtain covering up the as-yet-to-be-build western 300 level (why not a mosaic or wall art depicting the beauty Jax has to offer instead?), and a surreal seating color scheme that made it feel darker than it appeared really made the inevitable lackluster crowd seem that much more depressing. It may be truly beautiful on the outside, but the interior needs a major overhaul...and it's only 8 years old.
I truly feel sorry for both Jacksonville University for having to play here and the residents of the city whom, I'm sure, contribute tax money toward this venue each and every year. They all deserve much better than this.
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