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Official Review by Jim Folsom, Stadium Journey Special Correspondent
The O'Connell Center in Gainesville, Florida is home to the Florida Gators. It is mostly known for the men's basketball team, but is also the home of several other Gator sports such as women's basketball, men's and women's indoor track, women's volleyball and women's gymnastics and even men's and women's swimming and diving.
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".
Typical arena fare is available at the concourse level. Also you can find stands that have bar-b-q and even some ethnic foods. Unfortunately the concourse level is broken up so you cannot walk all the way around so sometimes if you go out to one side looking for a pizza, for example, you might find out it is on the other side and will have to walk through the arena to get to it. But that's really not a big deal. My favorite is to get a large popcorn because unless the game goes into triple OT, you are not going to finish that whole bag. I usually have half left for my two hour drive home. Prices are typically high as in most arenas or stadiums, not exceptionally high.
When you first walk inside, it's hard to miss the smell of chlorine. That is because there is an inside stadium just below the concourse level for the swimming and diving team. When you are at street level and walk into the inside of the main arena you notice that you are actually above the lower bowl. The O'Connell Center looks fairly large from the outside, but actually half of it is underground. It has 12,000 seats for basketball with three levels of seats. While the Gators are usually one of the top teams in the country, many times the arena has thousands of empty seats. Make no mistake, Florida is a "football school" first. Basketball, although it has made great strides, is still well behind football on the Gator Nation radar. But this is not necessarily a bad thing. The people who do attend are into the game. They didn't come to be part of the event. They really like basketball. Since the seats are rarely full, many fans can buy cheap tickets and then move down into better seats closer to the action. How many National Championship contenders can you do that at their place?
When you sit in your seats and look up at the ceiling it's hard to miss the two blue banners and two orange banners above the basket at the end where the visitors bench is located. The two blue banners are for the 1994 Final Four team and the 2000 Final Four team. The two orange banners next to them are for the 2006 National Championship Team and the 2007 National Championship team. Then you notice that there are banners all around the arena for all the other teams that call the O'Dome home. A lot of winning goes on in this place. Among those banners are two orange National Championship banners for the men's indoor track team from 2010 and 2011.
It can be quiet in the O'Dome (except for the Rowdy Reptiles) early in the season when the Gators are playing teams from smaller conferences, usually resulting in easy wins. But for the SEC games, it can be deafening in there. The loudest I've ever heard it in there was in 2010 when Chandler Parsons hit a three point shot at the buzzer to beat South Carolina. The roof was about to come off that night.
Since the O'Dome, as it is affectionately known by the students and fans of Florida, is across the street from Ben Hill Griffin Stadium, the same restaurants and shops that people visit for football games are also there for basketball. The difference is for basketball they are a whole lot less crowded. My favorite is to get a sub at Larry's across the street on University Avenue before the game. But the Copper Monkey, the Swamp and countless "mom and pop" stands are all right there waiting to serve. There won't be 100,000 people there like there are for football games, so basketball games are a good opportunity to see what campus actually looks like on a normal day.
At the football stadium there is usually a "fan fare" set up for pre-game where there are tables set up and fans can get autographs from other Gator athletes. Some game might have the baseball team or the softball team. Another you may get the tennis or golf teams, etc. They will also have things like face painting for the kids or a basketball hoop where kids can test their skills. There might even be a couple of food vendors set up.
If you get there early, you will notice that the lower section on the courtside seats opposite the benches will be filled already with screaming pom pom waving students. These are free to students but are first come first serve. It is handled now by some kind of student lottery but only a few years ago, it was not unusual to see students camping out three to four days before a home game to get these seats. These students are known as the "Rowdy Reptile" and they live up to their name. They will stand up for the entire time they are in the arena, yelling at the top of their lungs throughout game. Taunting opposing players is a requirement when sitting in the Rowdy Reptile section. Some of the favorites are "AIRBALL!" to whatever poor soul from the opposing teams jacks up a shot that finds nothing but floor. Or chanting "left, right, left, right, SIT DOWN!!" at a player who fouls out can also be heard.
When you first arrive in Gainesville for a men's basketball game, you have a couple of choices for free parking. If you want to get there a little early there is a parking garage right next to the arena with three levels of free parking. Another choice is to drive a bit down Lemerand Drive (aka North South Dr) and you will see a parking lot with a bus stop near the street. You can park in the lot for free and take a free bus ride to the arena. After the game you can catch the bus outside the arena and drive it back to the car. Either way, you cannot beat free parking. Each with very little walking required.
Tickets are very reasonable considering this is for a National Championship contender most years. You can get tickets as low as five dollars for some games. Since I live a long way away, I will normally buy a six-game package for $10 a ticket. Sitting in the lower section might set you back $30 tops. Not too bad when you compare that to the Orlando Magic's ticket prices at Amway Center. Free parking certainly helps the equation when evaluating the overall return on investment, and overall this is a bargain to see high level SEC basketball.
One extra point for the ability to sit beneath the back-to-back championship banners. The Gators are only the 7th program to claim basketball championships in consecutive seasons. Good trivia question for your friends is to name all seven: Florida, Duke, UCLA, Oklahoma State, Kentucky, San Francisco, and Cincinnati. Another extra point for those in the Rowdy Reptile section. A good student section really makes a huge difference at collegiate sporting events, and this group never gets their full due in the college basketball world.
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1620 W University Ave
Gainesville, FL 32603
1700 W University Ave
Gainesville, FL 32603
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