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Official Review by Brian Wilmer, Stadium Journey Regional Correspondent
Two 2015 dates were key in both the present and future of the Big South Conference. On September 1, Coastal Carolina University announced its intention to depart the league for the Sun Belt Conference following the season. With Coastal's HTC Center having hosted the three prior Big South tournaments, the league began the process of looking for a new tournament host. Just over two months later, on November 4, the league announced the awarding of the 2016 men's tournament to Campbell University. This would mark the first time in over 15 years that the entirety of the tournament would be played in North Carolina.
Just shy of four months later, the first-round tournament participants took the floor at Campbell's Pope Convocation Center/Gore Arena, marking a new era for Big South Conference basketball. The venue proved to be a solid one for the league; the eight-year-old facility officially announced attendance of two-thirds capacity or greater for all four days.
Though no official announcement about when -- or if -- the tournament will return to Buies Creek, North Carolina, has been made, the league and community banded together to put on an event of which all should be proud.
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Each area is rated from 0 to 5 stars with 5 being the best. The overall composite score is the "FANFARE Score".
The food choices inside the arena offer enough to make a meal, but one won't be overwhelmed with choices. The "hot" selections (though they may not stay hot for long, which we'll cover later) include pretzels ($2), nachos ($3), hot dogs ($3), chicken sandwiches ($4), barbecue sandwiches ($4) and pizza slices ($4). Most of the food appears to be standard arena fare. Oddly, the chicken sandwiches are not from Chick-fil-A, which operates an express location in one of the campus buildings across Main Street from the arena.
Coca-Cola is the bottler for the arena, with bottled sodas ($2) and water ($2) accompanying Powerade ($3) to quench fans' thirst. Candy ($2), Oreo churros ($2), cotton candy ($3), and popcorn ($2) offer snack and "dessert" options.
Snoballs (sno-cones, essentially) are also available, offering nearly 20 flavors. A small is $3, with a large clocking in at $4.
The selection's passable, and the lines are fine at both the fixed and portable stands, but there is opportunity here. A hamburger, french fries or some other hot option would be a nice addition to a somewhat spartan menu.
When walking into Campbell's facility, it's easy to get the idea that it could -- and maybe should -- serve as a blueprint for any new facility built by a school of its size. The exterior of the building is an attractive brick-and-glass combination, with a camel statue (Campbell's mascot is the camel) greeting fans on the left of the plaza as they approach the main entrance. The lobby offers an attractive foyer, with Big South flags lining the stairs up to the arena. The ticket window is to the right, should your tickets not already have been procured before arrival.
A single concourse rings the arena, with all of the seating and playing surface below it. Every seat offers a chair back, which cannot be said for all league schools. The seats are spacious and comfortable -- a plus for those days in which three or four tournament games are played -- with cupholders for your beverage. The only exception, in terms of cupholders, is in the first row of seats. The seats are all within close proximity of the floor, making for very few sightline concerns. There are two seating levels. Sections 114-116 and the seats behind each bench are reserved, with a slight bit of padding on many of those seats. All other seating in the building is general admission, with plenty of room and a decent amount of comfort. All of the seats are an orange color, again as an homage to the home team.
The school debuted a four-sided, high-definition video board at center court just before the tournament began, with a ribbon scoreboard circling underneath it. Fans can clearly see the video action as it takes place from any location inside the arena, though the board seems to offer fewer replays than most in the stands would prefer. The ribbon scoreboard displays the score and time remaining in an easily-read font. Additional scoreboards are on either wall, with the board on the "far" wall (closest to the home bench) offering the game's line score and pertinent player information. The board on the "near" wall (nearest the entrance/exit) displays just the score, time remaining and other basic information.
As with all Big South tournaments, the lights are dimmed before lineups are announced, and each team's introductory video is shown. This gives a home court feel, even for those schools that are miles away from their respective arenas. Some of the bands attended, and for varying times. Having the bands around for more of the tournament would have been a welcome addition. The schools' cheerleaders and dance teams also made appearances, which helped add to the atmosphere. As one might expect, the arena got quite rowdy for Campbell's Thursday evening first-round game. Though the Camels were eliminated in their first contest, the crowd came out in full throat to cheer on the home charges, making for an extremely loud and lively evening.
One item of note -- the fans/air conditioning in the building can prove to be quite problematic. They came on during each session, and were both so forceful that stat sheets and other debris blew off the scorer's table, and so cold that fans and others were left scrambling for jackets. The air can also lead to your food getting cool a bit earlier than desired, so keep this in mind.
Buies Creek is a tiny portion of North Carolina's Harnett County, measuring fewer than three square miles. As such, the neighborhood near the campus is somewhat limited to US Highway 421, which runs between Dunn and Lillington, the two nearest cities. There are a few dining establishments within walking distance, including Moe's Southwest Grill, Chick-fil-A Express, and Subway. Most are good for a quick bite before, after, or between games, but are open odd hours. Be careful to check the hours before venturing outside. There are also a few light-service options around, such as Starbucks and The Groc (an on-campus convenience store). Creek Coffee is also located in the vicinity. For an idea of the locations of these establishments, view Campbell's map here.
Most of the other dining options can be found in Dunn (about 10 miles south of campus toward Interstate 95) or Lillington (five miles or so north along US Highway 421). Chain dining abounds in each city, with an increasing amount of options as I-95 approaches in Dunn.
Lodging is also a bit of a concern if you plan to attend a tournament at Campbell. A smallish Microtel is the primary lodging option near campus, and is a run-of-the-mill budget hotel. A larger selection avails itself in Dunn, including a Fairfield Inn & Suites. Most other options are in Fuquay-Varina (25 minutes north), the Raleigh-Durham-Cary area (45 minutes north) or Fayetteville (40 minutes south).
The Campbell campus itself is quite pretty and serene, with lots of space to take a quiet stroll. If the weather is suitable, as it was for approximately half the 2016 tournament, take a walk around the grounds and enjoy the comfort of small-college life.
All things considered, fan turnout for this tournament proved to be quite commendable. Each league school has a varying fan base, naturally, but most institutions traveled quite well. This was especially the case for the host school, as one might expect, and those schools who played over the weekend. As such, the arena was mostly full for most sessions, and the fans were quite loud throughout.
Campbell's fans and locals also deserve quite a bit of notice here. Despite their team being knocked out early, many fans affiliated with neither team on the court continued to come out and help fill the arena. The crowd, though, was enough to draw quite a bit of praise in this column from the Fayetteville Observer's Bret Strelow.
Once fans get inside the arena at Campbell, access is a breeze. It's getting to the arena at Campbell that presents a problem.
Campbell is located just a couple of minutes off US Highway 421, which is not necessarily the problem. There are just a number of problems around the experience for which one must account. For example, parking -- especially the first day of the tournament -- was a nightmare. The campus is not the largest already, and the primary lot designated for fan parking (Lot C) was closed off by cones. To make matters worse, the parking attendants sent fans to another lot, which had no available parking. The attendant at that lot told drivers that they were welcome to anything they could find there, but if not, they would have to go to Lot Y. There would have been no way to easily know where Lot Y was, except for hearing an attendant say over a walkie-talkie that they were telling fans to park at the football stadium.
Once fans parked at the football stadium -- very few spots were left there, as well -- the walk to the arena presented another problem. The stadium and its parking are on an opposite side of US Highway 421 from the arena and main campus, leaving fans to cross a busy highway and walk over a half-mile to the arena. It was said that there was a tunnel under 421, but this was not easily located, and would not have saved any time on the walk. It should be noted that the parking situation got a bit better as the days went on, but this was one of the areas that could benefit from much better signage and communication.
There are two entrances to the arena, with one atop either set of stairs. The ticket scanning process is quite simple, as a friendly staff member will welcome you into the arena. The doors enter into a wide concourse, with room to spare for even the most packed house. The view of the arena floor is virtually unobstructed from anywhere on the concourse, except for the area behind the VIP suite atop sections 114-116. Restrooms are clean and plentiful, offering an appropriate amount of facilities for all.
For fans looking to fly into the area, Raleigh-Durham International Airport (RDU) is likely the most budget-friendly option. The drive from the airport clocks in at about one hour, with tolled and non-tolled highway options. Fayetteville Regional Airport (FAY) is about 45 minutes southeast, if that is easier.
If you're looking to see postseason basketball, you'll be hard-pressed to find a better value for your entertainment dollar. Tickets for the entire tournament could be had for $40 (general admission) or $60 (reserved). Buying the all-session ticket put fans in a general admission seat for $4 per game, or a reserved seat for $6 each. One could not even see a regular-season game for this price.
Single-session tickets also went on sale, at a similarly discounted rate. The best overall value, however, will always be in the all-tourney package.
Averaging out these per-game prices, fans can park, get a program (more on those in a bit), and get a food item, a drink and game admission for no greater than $10. This is incredible value.
Programs for the 2016 tournament were free, and plentiful throughout the arena. A magazine rack at the bottom of the lobby steps was stocked with the periodical-style books throughout, and the programs included all of the information one might need to know about each participating institution.
Utz potato chips (an East Coast brand) ran a promotion in which all fans were given a snack-sized bag of potato chips to help fans sample the product. This was a nice addition for those fans still left a bit hungry after extended periods of watching close games.
Promotions took place during just about every break in the action, including putting contests, the Dribble Dash (racing basketballs on the big screen), shooting challenges, tricycle races, and more. These promotions gave fans the chance to win prizes, and helped fill the downtime between action on the court. The best promotion, as always, involved the league mascots, as they participated in a bowling contest. The winner, Winthrop University's Big Stuff, took home $1,000 for the school's general scholarship fund.
For those who like to have clean hands, Campbell has a number of sanitizing stations spread throughout the arena. This is a welcome touch to help avoid the cold and flu season that so often happens around the time of the tournament each year. There is also a charging station for your cell phone on the concourse, should you find yourself running out of juice.
Curiously, there was no visible location selling Big South tournament gear in 2016. This would have been good for fans looking for commemorative items.
With all things taken into account, it is hard to see how the conference and Campbell University could have done much better in putting on a tournament. Sure, there were a few mishaps here and there, but on the whole, everyone from fans to staff and coaches seemed to be thrilled with the result. There has been no announcement made on the future of the league's tournament, but were it to come back to Buies Creek, there is every reason to believe that it would again be a success.
Congratulations to UNC Asheville, the 2016 Big South tournament champions!
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