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Official Review by Andrew Kulyk, Stadium Journey Special Correspondent
SAP Arena in the Baden-Wurttemberg region of Germany opened its doors in 2005, and immediately raised the bar as to the glitz and quality of the arenas in the DEL ("Deutsche Eishockey Liga", or German Ice Hockey League). Except for its capacity (13,700 spectators for ice hockey), it has all the makings and trappings of an NHL facility – from amenities such as club seats and premium restaurants, to an attached practice facility, to superb scoreboard and electronics, to stunning architecture and wide sweeping concourses. The arena has as its primary tenant the powerhouse Adler Mannheim hockey team, which interestingly, used to play in town in a venue called Friedrichspark, which is an open air and ramshackle hockey barn located right in the city.
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 is a nice diversity of food and beverage here, and it has all the presentation of an American or Canadian concession operation. The major food stands on the two concourse levels are named Xxtra Sausage, Pizza Dome, and Pommes Point. You can find your favorite bratwurst or currywurst at Xxtra, while Pommes sells French fries with assorted toppings, and Pizza Dome, of course, sells fresh baked pizza. Cookies and ice cream are available at remote vending carts, and a roaming vendor buggy sells hot pretzels (don't grab any mustard for dipping, as the locals will glare at you). The local brew is Warsteiner Beer with a cost of €3.00, along with assorted Coke and Fanta products (also €3), but grab a four pack and you save a euro. A full service restaurant named Rosso offers table service with a buffet and a la carte menu before each game. Reservations recommended.
For a European venue, the SAP Arena sort of overwhelms the senses. It sits amidst a corn field, industrial park, open scrub land, and not too far away from a residential neighborhood, so fans congregate in the parking lots and sweeping large plazas surrounding the building, and you can feel the excitement before you even walk in. The size and scale of the arena is what is sort of unprecedented in the German league. It is an imposing venue, clean, bright, and well lit, and there is a passion among the fans which one can instantly feel.
Well it really isn't much of a neighborhood, so the operators of SAP Arena have created one. The building is surrounded by superhighways, and off to the south, the view is open fields, brush, and smokestacks of factories in the distance. So, with remote vending carts and some seating areas, and wide public plazas for congregating, the arena property stands alone amidst parking for almost 5,000 vehicles in several lots.
Oh, the fans. The wonderful and passionate Adler Mannheim fans who sing and chant and clap and taunt and show their colors and passion in so many ways. With this region devoid of a top flight soccer team (FC Kaiserslautern is the nearest franchise, geographically), hockey is king in Mannheim, and the boosters here, via their club named the Adler Fanprojekt, whoop it up, with the primary cheering section being the standing area in the one end zone. Thousands of fans congregate there, arriving early, unfurling their flags, and grabbing their horns and drums. The songs start early, they go non stop, and they stick around long after the final whistle to continue the chants and the songs. Visitors and tourists can drop by the end zone concourse and just start chatting with the locals.
This is about the best thought-out transportation and access plan of any sports venue anywhere. There is a loop of expressways and divided highways surrounding SAP Arena, and access from the A5 or A6 highways gets you right onto the ring road and into any of the parking lots with relative ease. As for public transportation, a new tram and rail platform was opened in 2012, just a five minute walk across the parking lots. The Rhein-Neckar S-Bahn line offers tram service, while the Deutsche Bahn train line stops at the Rangierbahnhof station right next to the tram platform, and offers quick service to the Mannheim HBF to the west and the Heidelberg HBF to the east.
Standing room tickets cost €15.00. Kids seats can be bought for €6.50. They have a season ticket base of almost 7000, so many of the games are sellouts, and buying tickets early can be considered a good strategy. If you take public transport, your game ticket will include the ride from the city and back. And the cost of concessions won't set you back a ton. Hey, where in the NHL could one ever hope to buy four draft beers for €11.00?!
We're handing out plenty of extra points today. Two points are for the public address announcer and game night host Udo Scholz. "Udo" is a legend around these parts; he has been involved in sports for many of his 70+ years of life, serving as PA guy in Dortmund and Kaiserslautern. He adds his own unique touch of announcing and just the right mix of cheerleading to help energize the crowd.
Next, props to the developers, who had the foresight to go ahead with plans over the objections of a small, but noisy band of obstructionists, who were trying to save, of all things, a hamster farm on the arena site.
The practice rink, arena restaurant, and other facilities in the building means this arena is in almost constant use, even on non game days. It is a real hub of activity.
Jochen Hecht is the most famous player to come from this region and find fame and fortune in the NHL as a member of the Buffalo Sabres. If he ran for mayor here, he'd win and it wouldn't be close.
And lastly, a point for Friedrichspark. If you want to see old school hockey, check out this ramshackle arena with its open side walls, bench style seating, and design which takes you back to the way indoor/outdoor hockey used to be played. The facility is still used for inline hockey and is worth the trip.
There are arenas, and then there are arenas. This venue is a total hockey experience. It has all the glitz, comfort, tradition, banners hanging from the rafters, passionate and crazed fans, and two great and charming cities close by worth exploring - Mannheim and Heidelberg. SAP Arena ranks high on the list of European hockey destinations. And rightfully so.
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