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Official Review by Andy Mantsch, Stadium Journey Special Correspondent
The Fresno State Bulldogs basketball team is the biggest show in town in California’s Central Valley. In a state rich with college basketball teams, the Bulldogs are a pit stop halfway between the basketball rich markets of Southern California and the Bay Area. Members of the Mountain West since 2012, Fresno State were longtime members of the Western Athletic Conference prior to nationwide football related conference re-alignment. The program has a spotty history of success, with five NCAA Tournament appearances and one NIT title to its credit. Their last NCAA tournament appearance came in 2001 however, so this is a program mired in a long postseason success drought.
The Save Mart Center opened in 2003 as the premier arena of any kind in the Central Valley. Capable of seating over 16,000 for some events, it’s the largest venue of its kind outside of the more populated hubs in California. The arena hosts all kinds of events, from basketball and hockey to concerts and rodeos and serves as a hotspot for Fresno culture. It is home to both men’s and women’s basketball for Fresno State.
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".
The Save Mart Center offers a surprisingly wide selection of concessions beyond your average arena food. Guadalajara Cantina is your destination for Mexican food that is so popular in the Fresno/Clovis area. Finnigan's Grill is an Irish themed spot where you can get a ½ pound hot dog or spicy sausages. West coast pizza chain Me-N-Ed's Pizza is also available in the concourse as well as the Bulldog Grill for your burger and chicken sandwich fix. Prices are just a tad on the high side for menu items around the arena, ranging from $5-$10.
A unique feature of the Save Mart Center for college basketball games is the sale of alcohol. There is beer sold both at the standard concession stands as well as at alcohol specific vendors around the concourse. The latter offers some California craft beer, which is highly unexpected at a mid-major college basketball venue. There's also a Fresno State Wines vendor where you can get local wine, something I really didn't expect to find in a college basketball arena. If you care to enjoy these items, be prepared to spend upwards of $9 per drink.
The Save Mart Center is justifiably the best overall venue in the San Joaquin Valley for indoor sports. The large capacity arena is new looking and clean, boasting a very comfortable atmosphere. For college basketball, it's not the most intimate setting as it has the feel of a larger multi-purpose venue. It's prepared to be a great venue for 15,000 fans coming to cheer on their college basketball team, unfortunately Fresno State doesn't draw anywhere near that well. For a middling program with a meager following at a football-first school, the cavernous arena tends to feel empty even with a reasonable amount of fans.
The staff does a great job of running promotions and making the most of the fans they have to work with. On the occasion that I attended, they were running a toys-for-tots promotion that involved throwing stuffed animals onto the court. They also dropped snowflakes from the rafters with various prizes attached for the lucky recipients. This would have been easy to win with any effort, because unfortunately there weren't that many fans in the stands. Here lies the problem with the venue. While it's big and beautiful, the basketball program just isn't good enough to fill it and it ends up just accentuating the lack of success of the program. Along with the ticket and parking prices, this gives me the feel that the program itself has an impression that it demands more attention than it actually does.
Just outside the Save Mart Center you'll find Shaw Avenue, the main strip along Fresno State University. Unfortunately, there's not quite the volume of options available at some other universities for those looking for a lively college atmosphere. You'll find apartment complexes, strip malls and several restaurants that double as bars. The crown jewel of the area, the Dog House Grill, is right across the street. This is your destination for California tri-tip and sports on TV. Be warned, parking is limited and the lines are long. This is an indicator of the excellent food here, but it means some additional planning needs to be in place when attending. In the area you'll also find BJ's Brewhouse and BC's Pizza and Wings, which are reasonable options for pregame. Relatively close to the arena is the Tower District, which is your hot spot for the more popular bars and restaurants.
Hotels should be easy to find all up and down Shaw Avenue for whatever price range you're looking for. I'd strongly recommend staying in the university area or Clovis and not in downtown Fresno. While a relatively large city, Fresno has fallen on economic hard times and is not the most visually appealing or safest of downtowns.
Maybe it's the recent lack of success of the team or maybe it's the higher than expected ticket prices, but the fans just don't really turn out for the games. There are definitely some die hard Bulldog fans that very obviously frequent the games, but the volume just isn't there. To be fair, the stadium is larger than the majority of similar basketball programs which may make filling it a bit much to ask. In a smaller venue, the same crowd might have a considerably better impact on the game.
There is student section entrance on the west side of the arena where students get in free with their IDs. The arena is right on the edge of campus, so perhaps the biggest disappointment here is the lack of student engagement. If the student section were louder, this would by default help the entire venue. They do what they can to get participation during the game, but the support isn't large enough and the arena is too large to really maintain any consistent energy among the fans.
It really couldn't be much easier to get to the arena from anywhere in the Central Valley. The Save Mart Center is literally just off the exit from 168 and not far up the road from 41. Both connect with 180 to the south which connects with 99, the major route through the Central Valley from either north or south. I would strongly recommend sticking to these four routes, because trying to take Shaw all the way to 99 can be an arduous journey fraught with stops at red lights.
Parking is just as easy, with large lots surrounding the venue. Some fans choose to park for free across Shaw Avenue in the residential area, but be mindful that some of the restaurants have security to ensure that only patrons park there. Parking in the lots may be easier, but it comes at a $10 charge which is a bit surprising for a largely empty lot. If you didn't buy a ticket in advance, you'll want to proceed to the west side near the student entrance to purchase one. Ticket offices are not located at each entrance. Once inside the concourse it is easy to navigate and the lack of fans will make it easy to access seating anywhere in the arena.
Pricing seems to have risen drastically for the basketball games based on previous information at hand. Upper deck tickets (which aren't always available) start at $10, which is about the price I would expect to pay in general for a program at the level of Fresno State. You can buy tickets behind either basket for $15, which is still within reason. But if you're looking for tickets in reasonable viewing areas (particularly when the upper deck isn't available) you're going to end up paying $25 or more. The most shocking price to me is mid court tickets at $65! For a basketball program with minimal history and a dwindling fan base, charging premium ticket pricing seems like it could be contributing to the lack of support at the games. Understandably there are some ranked teams in the Mountain West, but $25 to watch a losing basketball team against a small conference foe seems out of whack with standard ticket pricing around the country.
Parking is also steep for the level of basketball. It seems as though the $10 lot is the standard pricing for all events at the arena, so that's more forgivable. But coupled with the ticket prices, it again seems like an expensive experience for a team with very little history of success. Overall, the arena itself makes it worth attending one time, but I'm not sure a return trip would be in the cards based on the price.
While nice, the Save Mart Center doesn't offer a lot of frills. It's your typical high-end venue. The staff seems to do an excellent job with promotions at the game to get fan engagement based on what they have to work with. The potential is here for a spectacular college basketball experience, but with all the empty seats and lack of wins from the team it's just not happening right now. Someday a winning team here may pack the large arena with ravenous fans, but right now it's an expensive and relaxing night out.
Member Review by ryannorris on Mar 02, 2013
Since it opened in 2003, the Save Mart Center has been the premier entertainment venue in California's central valley. Situated between the San Francisco and Los Angeles metropolitan areas, Fresno residents no longer need to make the long drive to see the likes of Elton John, Madonna, Green Day, Beyoncé, The Rolling Stones and Justin Timberlake. Seating up to 18,000 concertgoers, SMC is on par capacity-wise with the major California arena venues in Los Angeles, Anaheim, Sacramento, Oakland and San Jose.
The Fresno State Bulldogs basketball began play at the Save Mart Center the year it opened after moving from Selland Arena. The Bulldogs have made five NCAA Tournament appearances, making the Sweet Sixteen in 1982. They were NIT Tournament champions in 1983.
For the 2012-13 season, Fresno State began play in the Mountain West Conference, leaving the WAC with Hawaii and Nevada.
Member Review by alegge1 on Jan 18, 2015
I went to my first game in almost seven years. I was on my way to the bathroom when I got punched right in the mouth. It took 45 minutes for security to show up. Once they did, they accused me of being high and drunk. I wasn't either. They kicked my and by boyfriend out because "we were involved and that is the protocol" even though we asked for proof and they couldn't show us. I was threatened over and over to be arrested because I was asking questions as to why I was being kicked out and not getting my assaulter's information. They let him go. They refuse to give me the name of the person that hit me in the face.
Member Review by alegge1 on Jan 18, 2015
if you want to get assaulted and not be given that persons name, then come here. They do what they want to protect their own.
Member Review by sportsroadtrips on Feb 11, 2016
Beautiful venue that needs more fans. Try a berrock for $5. Check out the concourse displays. Hopefully you can go to a game when the upper deck is open, which spaces out the crowd a bit more. Worth a visit for Dog House Grill alone.
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