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Official Review by Ryan Norris, Stadium Journey Regional Correspondent
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.
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".
It looks like for bigger events they have some unique stands like ice cream (from their dairy) and wine made at the university. Other closed stands included Guadalajara Cantina and Finnigan's Grill.
The main concessions just sold the typical fare like hamburgers, hot dogs, pretzels and nachos, as well as sodas and energy drinks.
There were two unique stands open on this particular night. One was Me-N-Ed's pizza serving delicious slices. The other was an alcohol stand (somewhat rare for college basketball venues) that served beer, wine and cocktails (both premium and well varieties).
I can't express enough my surprise in how loud the building got with so many empty seats. The fans in attendance brought the energy throughout what was a close game against #18 New Mexico, until the Lobos pulled away at the end.
The most notable adjustment for Fresno State games is that they have the entire upper level curtained off. This is just fine as the lower level provided plenty of seats and the white conference championship banners really popped against the black background of the curtain.
I thought the stands at the baseline were situated at too much of a gradual incline. This made me feel farther away from the action because of how much space there was between rows. On the plus side, there was plenty of leg room.
I thought the sight lines were fantastic but it was a bit cavernous for a college venue. Perhaps the strangest site was that there was a four-sided center court video/scoreboard. It was a nice scoreboard, again, just a little odd for college ball.
Apartment complexes and strip malls are the mainstays immediately near the Fresno State campus, heavily influenced by college students.
The Dog House Grill is the Fresno staple for a pregame meal. This place is certainly popular as there were two attendants directing traffic in the parking lot to available spaces. Each time I've tried to eat here the line out the door has deterred me. I recommend getting there long before tip to avoid the line.
Instead, I've frequented the Red Wave Inn on E. Shaw Ave a few times. From the outside it looks like quite a dive but the inside is much cleaner than I would've expected. The lighting was a bit dark but they had a couple of HD screens showing NBA playoffs, a great beer selection, and good food that was very cheap. Everything on the menu was $6 or lower and included burgers, burritos, quesadillas, nachos, etc. A large 26 oz draft was $6.50 and choices included beers from Sierra Nevada, New Belgium, Firestone Walker, Stone, and more. There was plenty of room when I arrived but I get the sense that it is a popular nightlife spot later on in the evening; showcasing televisions, a pool table and a karaoke machine.
Both Red Wave Inn and Dog House Grill are walking distance to the Save Mart Center.
There are many sit-down chain options like Buffalo Wild Wings, Old Spaghetti Factory and Red Lobster, as well as several fast food options.
The Tower District is a short drive away but includes some of the more hip bars and restaurants in the central valley. It's worth a trip if you have time.
After being somewhat disappointed with the fans at Bulldog Stadium, I was impressed with the level of intensity throughout the game at the Save Mart Center. It would have been nice if attendance was a bit better but I was consistently surprised with how loud the place got.
There was a small student section that held court right next to the pep band. I would have liked to see a few more students at the game, especially since they get in for free with their student ID and a ranked team was in town. Perhaps the Bulldogs early season struggles played a role; or perhaps it was the week night game.
Four different freeways run through Fresno; 180, 41, 168, and 99, which runs as far north as Sacramento. If traveling from out of town I'd recommend staying on a freeway (41 or 168) as long as possible. The less amount of time you spend on Shaw Ave, the better. It tends to get backed up for big games and after-work hours.
There is a parking lot adjacent to SMC with spots available for $10. If you don't mind the walk, there is residential parking across Shaw Ave.
You can enter and exit at any corner of the spacious arena. Each entrance has several ticket takers so getting in is a breeze. The main concourse seemed especially wide, though it may have seemed that way because the light foot traffic. Getting to your seats, concessions and restrooms is very easy.
The Bulldog Shop sold Fresno State merchandise and was its own entity with an entrance off of the main concourse. This was nice since it didn't create another line like a regular concession stand would.
A $10 ticket and access to free parking is a great deal for catching Division I basketball; especially considering the good game against a nationally ranked opponent. The sparse crowd also allowed for roaming throughout several sections to catch the game from different angles.
Though it seems many Central California residents think of the Save Mart Center for concerts rather than Fresno State basketball, they do a good job with bits of Bulldog memorabilia. They have display cases for several of the men's and women's teams around the concourse.
They have various banners honoring tournament appearances and conference championships in the rafters.
SMC is a top-notch entertainment venue and a great place for Fresno State to play.
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