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Official Review by Sean MacDonald, Stadium Journey Special Correspondent
In 1975, Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier fought their third and final bout in Manila, The Philippines. Known as the “Thrilla in Manila”, the match is now considered one of the greatest sporting events of the 20th century. Despite the magnitude of the bout, few fans in North America could actually name the venue that hosted these two great boxers that early October morning. The answer, as you’ve likely already figured, is the Araneta Coliseum, located in the Cubao district of Manila. Unlike venues in the U.S. which are torn down after 30 or 40 years, the Araneta Coliseum is still operating as both a sporting and concert venue, making it a worthwhile destination for your next Stadium Journey if you’re in Manila.
The coliseum was opened in 1960 after a three-year construction period. Named after the influential Araneta family, it quickly gained the appropriate if unoriginal nickname “Big Dome”. Its design is clearly reminiscent of the ancient Roman coliseums and at the time of its inauguration, Araneta received international recognition as the largest covered coliseum in the world. Even today, it remains the largest indoor facility in Southeast Asia with a dome diameter of 108 meters.
In July 1999, the coliseum underwent its first major renovation when the lower box and patron sections had their seats replaced while a four-sided scoreboard was hung above center court. This scoreboard was replaced in December 2010 with a large LED screen dubbed the "Big Cube" in keeping with the tradition of simple yet accurate nicknames.
Midway through 2011 it was announced that the Araneta family entered into a naming rights deal with Smart, the mobile subsidiary of the Philippine Long Distance Telephone Company. The resulting moniker, Smart Araneta Coliseum, can be confusing for those of us not familiar with Smart; in reality the coliseum is no more intelligent than any other venue. Still, with the new name bringing further renovations, the Araneta Coliseum has kept up with the times and is in surprisingly good shape despite being more than half a century old.
These days, the Philippine Basketball Association plays most of its games here with weekend doubleheaders the top draw. Keep in mind that the Philippines is a third world country and this review compares Araneta to other venues that have been visited in countries with similar economic circumstances.
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Each area is rated from 0 to 5 stars with 5 being the best. The overall composite score is the "FANFARE Score".
As you arrive, you will notice about a dozen restaurants that are part of the dome, but still outside the entrance. These are your best options for dining; examples include steaks at Kangaroo Jack, donuts at Krispy Kreme, and coffee at Starbucks. If you prefer to go truly local, try Mang Inasal, a ubiquitous fast food chain with very cheap chicken.
Inside there are a few stalls including American stalwarts Pizza Hut, Taco Bell and Wendy's, but I would recommend the Siao Paw at Snaxxs on the second level. For 45 pesos (about $1.30) you get a sweet chicken bun that I have not seen at another venue anywhere in the world. It was quite tasty and a better bet than that burrito that you can always buy stateside.
Soda pop is available here as well, but there was no beer on sale that I noticed.
I saw two games at Araneta and the atmosphere at each was markedly different. For the first match, there were a few fans for one team who cheered constantly, but the rest of the arena was quiet and not that interesting, perhaps because the game was a blowout.
For the second battle though, things were much better as the teams were two of the most popular in the nation. From the opening introductions, fans around the arena were on their feet and making a lot of noise. This continued through the game, which was close to the end.
During breaks, there wasn't much else such as cheerleaders, although some guys used slingshots to toss t-shirts into the crowd. The scoreboard was used to replay some good dunks and other plays and kept the fans going during the timeouts.
Araneta Center is a relatively nice area of Manila, which is a run-down city in many other parts. The Coliseum is surrounded by shopping malls, including the Ali Mall, naturally named after Muhammad Ali and opened in 1976, making it the first major shopping mall in the nation. You can try exploring the various malls during the day but always be aware of your surroundings as the area is known for pickpockets and other shady characters, particularly in the evening hours.
A great crowd turned out for the Sunday afternoon doubleheader and they were polite and knowledgeable, and really had a good time. During the intermissions some lined up in orderly fashion at the stalls while others went to get autographs from the players who would see action in the later contest. Many fans carried signs and nearly all stayed for both games.
Several fans had their infants with them while others seemed to be entire families. All in all, there was a wide variety of basketball fans and none paid me, the only foreigner, a second glance.
Getting to the Araneta Coliseum is very difficult due to the incredible traffic that clogs Manila's streets. There is plenty of parking around due to all the malls in the area should you decide to drive yourself. There is also an LRT stop right next to the arena if you wish to try public transportation, but it is not a particularly convenient line with few stops near a hotel that you might be staying. Ask your concierge for details on how to get here, most likely he will recommend a taxi which is cheaper, although it may not necessarily be faster.
Once inside, if you have the upper deck ticket you will immediately be shuttled upstairs, which is annoying if you want a full tour. The upper concourse is wide enough, although it did get jammed up during the intermissions. The seating area is well designed for an old venue and there were no problems walking around the entire dome once inside the seating bowl. With a capacity of about 15,000 and around 9,000 fans, it was not difficult finding a seat.
The men's washroom was incredibly crowded during halftime and between games which is always annoying. If you are in desperate need, go a bit before the break to beat the rush.
There are several ticket options with the most expensive at 800 pesos, about $24. This might sound cheap until you realize that 800 pesos is a lot of money in the Philippines and could easily buy 3 or 4 nice dinners. Rather, try the 70 peso general admission option that I much prefer as you get to choose your seat in the upper deck, which is not that far away from the court anyways. With two games on the schedule, this is truly fantastic value and you won't regret the money you spend.
There is a Christmas tree at one corner of the property that is famous throughout the Philippines and was quite impressive.
Around the upper deck concourse there are many posters of famous acts who have played at Araneta, including several musical acts and NBA players.
Finally, a point for being the home of the Thrilla in Manila and the banners commemorating it.
Araneta Coliseum is one of boxing's most historic venues and still a perfectly acceptable stadium for basketball. Fighting through the Manila traffic can be frustrating for the most experienced traveler, but if you want to visit one of Asia's most famous arenas, try your best to visit Araneta, famous for an entirely different kind of fighting and still bringing in fans after 50 years.
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