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Official Review by Marc Heiden, Stadium Journey Special Correspondent
A recent entry to the Western Athletic Conference (WAC), the Chicago State Cougars play in the cavernous Jones Convocation Center on the city’s far southeast side. The Cougars are probably the least-known of the area’s NCAA Division I basketball programs, though they’ve made progress on and off the court of late.
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 was only one concession stand open for a Saturday afternoon game, near section 109, though several more were shuttered in other corners of the arena. It is reminiscent of a concession stand at a junior high, run by a couple of parents who had buckled under pressure from the coach to help out at the game (and were now wishing they had never picked up the phone when he called). Lines are fairly short throughout the first half, though they back up at halftime, and the stand wasn't ready for it during my most recent visit.
Payment is cash only and prices are low. Food options are hot dogs and nachos ($3), "snack club" healthy snacks ($2), chips, candy, and popcorn ($1); beverages are cans of soda ($1), Gatorade, bottled water, and juice ($2).
Hot dogs are left to steam in foil tubs; when ordered, they get a quick warm-up on a roller grill and are surprisingly decent. Better to buy early, though, for a less soggy dog. And the concession stand ran out of cheese for the nachos by halftime, which was ridiculous, considering how small the crowd was.
There are several unplugged Pepsi vending machines around the arena, which - if some miscreant were to plug them in - would sell 20 oz. bottles for $1.25.
Basketball at the Jones Center doesn't make a great first impression. It's not easy to find on Chicago State's huge campus and there's little exterior signage to guide you. Entering the arena, there is no music or atmosphere in the lobby, just a pair of very long, slow-moving lines at the ticket window and will call table. (I saw one man with a restless kid in tow give up and bail on the ticket line.) It feels a lot more like registering for classes than getting ready for a basketball game.
As a first time visitor, it isn't clear how you're supposed to get from the lobby to the seating area. Signs, a trophy case, a television on a cart with season highlights, anything would help.
Though it opened in 2007, the Jones Center still looks like it is brand new. The court is gleaming, the seats are comfortable and unscuffed, and the place as a whole is spotless. A pair of drop down screens show game footage, though the main camera angle is shot from further back than the view of anyone who is sitting in the arena. (Had there been anyone in the upper deck, the screens would have been well situated.)
Despite the extremely sparse crowd during my visit, the in-game production worked hard to engage the fans without ever coming off as overbearing. The public address announcer strikes the right tone throughout and the volume isn't excessive. There were sound problems during the pre-game video production, but it was fine once the game began.
The only local spot worthy of note is Jim's Original (16 E. 95th St.), a 24-hour walk-up stand serving Polish sausages, pork chops, burgers, and hot dogs in the Maxwell Street tradition. Jim's Original has been around since 1939, though this location opened in 1990, right next to the expressway exit and the train station.
The Jones Center seats up to 7,000 people and I'd guess that 300, at most, were in the stands for Senior Day (despite an official attendance figure of 1,283 - second highest of the season). As a result, there wasn't enough crowd intensity to get chants going, though fans did make some noise for good plays.
There seemed to be a lot of friends and family members in the crowd, which lent a fun "proud mom" vibe to the area in which they were congregated (the Green section sideline, behind the Chicago State bench). In other areas, especially in the student sections and corners, there was a lot of distance between pockets of fans.
There was a new student cheer squad and student band, both of which lacked polish but delivered some genuine charm. The cheer squad had a lot of energy, while the band had a raw swing that was hard not to enjoy.
Despite being pretty far from downtown, Chicago State is easy to reach. The CTA Red Line train stops at 95th St., from which the campus is a little under a mile west (past Jim's Original). CTA buses run down 95th in case you prefer not to walk. The #3 bus runs from downtown Chicago directly to the school, though it's a long, long drive - the train and bus transfer will be faster.
The campus is cradled in the arms of I-94 (the Dan Ryan Expressway / Bishop Ford Freeway), and parking is free.
Inside the arena, wheelchair accessible seating is easy to reach, though signage is lacking; upon entering the arena, walk straight forward and turn left, and a bank of elevators will be on the left. The wheelchair seats are right off the elevators, and the concourses are wide enough that traffic should not be a problem at any point.
Restrooms are clean and empty throughout the game.
To be fair: whatever the experience may lack, it is cheap to see a game here. There's no Division I program in the Chicago area that even remotely compares to these prices. At $7 (or $5 for kids, teens, and seniors), a general admission ticket gives you free reign of the upper deck, but in practice, with no ushers or ticket takers, you have your pick of seats anywhere in the arena once you're through the door. And if anybody else in Chicago is offering free parking and $3 hot dogs, I'm not aware of it.
Sections to avoid would be the corners, which are the deadest areas of the lower deck, and the first row of the white section (along with its equivalent in the student section), where poorly designed banisters obscure the view of a fan of average height. Instead, aim for the green or lower white sections along the sidelines.
I'll award a bonus point for the public address announcer, who has a long career ahead of him. He had a strong, rich tone, switching between game facts and excitement with ease. During one timeout, his handling of an on-court fan competition with pitiful results was pitch perfect. If I were running one of the bigger schools or professional teams in the area, I'd give him a call.
I'll throw in a second bonus point for improvement. The new athletic program has put considerable energy into improving the experience here and it shows. However, there's a limit to how much fun you can have at a game that is this sparsely attended, especially considering the size of the Jones Center. It's easier said than done, but add a couple thousand more fans and this is a whole different category of basketball experience. (Though I shudder to imagine the impact on the concession stands.)
Member Review by paul
I was excited to attend a game at Chicago State University. The fact is, being a resident of Chicago for 13 years, I didn't know anything about this school, and was glad to finally see the final D-I basketball program in Cook County.
They have a new arena, which cost around $36M, so I thought that at worst, this may be an average experience. Boy, was I wrong.
Member Review by Cam Cain on May 06, 2013
Do not go to the Jones Convocation Center
16 E 95th St
Chicago, IL 60619
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