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Official Review by Scott Montesano, Stadium Journey Regional Correspondent
With extremely deep youth programs and well-funded high school teams, the Fargo (ND)-Moorhead (MN) region is one of the richest hockey areas in terms of interest levels in the United States. Passion for the sport in the community remains at a high level as the population continues to rise past the 200,000 plateau and with proximity to the powerful North Dakota program an hour north in Grand Forks, not to mention accessibility to Minnesota’s high school system, it’s top of mind in the area.
That said, junior hockey has never been the success one would think in the town. While the community loves to play the game, the junior game has struggled to rise past moderate interest level. The United States Hockey League (USHL) had two failed teams in the 1990s, while in the 2000s a North American Hockey League (NAHL) team was dominant on the ice and had a growing cult following, but wasn’t popular enough to avoid being pushed aside when local entrepreneurs put together a plan to build a privately-financed arena and secure another USHL team for the 2008-2009 season. The privately built facility would replace the outdated 1970s Carlson Coliseum on the city’s older north side.
The Scheels Arena, and Fargo Force, opened for business in October 2008 on the southwestern edge of the metropolitan area and is part of a planned residential/commercial district. Due to the recession and other factors, as of spring 2013 the area is still sparsely dotted with development, but progress can be seen even if slower than expected. The modern building has seating for roughly 4,500 in fixed plastic seats in a bowl shape, except that behind each goal the seats have been cut out. This is typical for larger arenas not built for minor league sports as a way to cut down on capacity, but in Fargo they did it for two reasons. On one side, they have simple wood bleachers that were designed for the high school students who attend the high school games and prefer to stand. The other side has a rink-level party area.
The concessions are located in an outer concourse and fans walk down a flight of stairs into an interior concourse that separates the suites from the actual seating bowl. Fans then walk down to their seats from there. Along the interior concourse, there are table top seats and behind both goals there are additional party areas available for groups to rent out. Like many other modern buildings, there isn’t a center-scoreboard, but instead two video boards located behind the goals with a ribbon board running the length of the ice on opposite sides.
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".
Scheels Arena offers a good variety of food and though not unique, it's more than acceptable. Vendors selling pizza, candied nuts, and mini donuts greet fans as soon as they come in the main entrance, while the main concession stands have the standard hot dogs and walking tacos. The building is cloaked in the smell of the candied nuts and the building is known as much for that as a movie house is for popcorn.
Prices are standard with a "meal" of an entrée (i.e., hot dog) along with drink costing about $6-$7. Beers will run about $6 but be on the lookout for some specials around the arena and come early because there is a discount on beer before the opening face-off.
Fargo has passionate fans for North Dakota State football and a very knowledgeable base for the American Association's Fargo-Moorhead Redhawks but while the Force have excellent attendance numbers, the crowds have never been known for being loud. All the ingredients are there for an exciting night as fans come dressed in jerseys and a couple of supporters even bang a drum all game, reminiscent of John Adams at Progressive Field for Cleveland Indians games. The staff does its part with a great game night presentation but at the end of the day the fans just don't get all that excited like they do at other USHL venues.
The overall presentation is one of the best though as the Force have a number of promotions that don't intrude on the game itself. There is synergy between the music, public address script and what is being shown on the video boards while the music is a wide variety and doesn't just stay in the same range like many buildings do. The sound system is one of the best around.
When the Scheels Arena was announced in February 2007, all the architects' conceptions assumed there would be residential and commercial development all around the arena with man-made ponds, walkways and excellent landscaping. The reality is that the recession put a halt to much of that and while the area continues to grow to the southwest the pace has slowed considerably. What's left is an arena that is still isolated. There is commercial development, and in a couple years this will likely be a better neighborhood, but for right now it's still too far away from the majority of restaurant and hotel choices.
The team's management went right after those people in Fargo who would go up to North Dakota hockey games for many years and have succeeded greatly in that department. Problem is those peoples' heart and passion still lies with UND even as they attend a Force game. Previous teams didn't try to woo these people and while they had more energetic fan bases their overall numbers were much lower than that of the Force.
And in numbers they do come with attendance around 3,500 per game for the Force's five seasons in the USHL. While they might not be as outwardly passionate as others, they do come. True support comes from attending the games first and foremost. Fans and staff are also extremely nice and polite at this building as the entire region is a perfect example of what people refer to as "Midwest nice."
The arena is located about five minutes off either I-94 coming from the west or east and five minutes off I-29 from either the north or the south. The airport, with regular flights connecting to Chicago, Denver and Minneapolis-St. Paul, is located on the far northern edge of the city and could be anywhere from a 10-20 minute drive to the arena depending on traffic.
Parking has always been a question mark at the facility as developers have been hesitant to pave over all the unused land around the building for various reasons. Still, what parking is available is free. Parking is also available at a team sponsor a few miles away from the arena with shuttle service provided.
There is nothing extraordinary about attending a game in Fargo, but nothing really wrong either. The building is new, sleek and modern and the staff does a great job with the presentation. If you're a junkie for a true minor league experience, then this is definitely a place to attend as the Force put on a clinic in how to mix promotions into a game without it stealing from the game itself. The crowd's lack of involvement though hurts the atmosphere.
The community itself will surprise anyone whose only recollection with the town is that it's the namesake for a 1996 Cohen brothers movie, as the region is a thriving metropolitan area. Yes, expect snow and subzero temperatures, but also expect a part of the country where there is growing commercialism and a successful housing market.
The area is very remote and if you're an outdoor enthusiast then this would be heaven. If possible, schedule a trip to coincide with a North Dakota State basketball game or football game or even make the drive an hour north to watch the University of North Dakota in either basketball, football or hockey. Maybe even take in a Moorhead High School game as that team routinely packs 2,500-3,000 into their own building and even more when playing a competitive opponent from places like Roseau or Warroad. There are some points of interest that have always interested the locals and feel free to visit Fargo-Moorehead as something may catch your eye.
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