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Official Review by Jim Dietrich, Stadium Journey Regional Correspondent
Amongst all of the state-run institutions in Florida, the University of North Florida seems to be lost in the mix with bigger schools like Florida, Florida State, Central Florida, South Florida, and even the smaller Florida A&M. It has a smaller endowment than all of the above schools as well as a larger acceptance rate, even though their campus area is one of the largest in the state. Maybe because Jacksonville just doesn't have the cachet that the cities in which the other schools are located; I mean, would you rather go to school in Miami, Tampa, Orlando...or Jacksonville?
This may be an unfair question, but one that needs to be asked, as I had never heard of this school until I researched all the Division I basketball programs in Florida and came across this gem of a school. The campus is in the middle of a nature preserve just to the east of Jacksonville's beltway, Interstate 295 - the portion of which that passes to the east of downtown Jax. Nestled between trees and lakes is this almost rustic, yet very modern, campus. At the heart of the campus is UNF Arena, the 5,800-seat venue built in 1993 to house, amongst other sports, the basketball teams.
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".
Let's get this out of the way now: you don't need to have over-the-top exotic cuisine to get high marks in this category. It's simply how you present the food you do have. So, when you walk in the main doors and see one concession area with two booths, one for food and one for merchandise, don't be surprised to know those are it. Quite frankly, the arena is small enough that it's all that is needed, and as the queues move quickly, there's no need to worry about missing much of the action.
What impressed me is not anything about the selection "" which is your typical pizza, hamburgers, nachos, popcorn "" but the fact that everything was reasonably priced. Go to a larger venue and find a $3 slice of pretty decent pizza or $4 for a large soda...go ahead, I dare you. And, my God, $3 for beer! If I didn't have to drive back to St. Petersburg that night, I would have had probably $18 worth of beer and gotten drunk. Spend that much at, say, Raymond James Stadium, and you're just bound to only start thinking about a marginal buzz.
I'm a sucker for loud, crowd-pumping music. As evidence by my "giddy as a schoolgirl at a Justin Bieber concert" reaction to the same song at the St. Pete Times Forum, any venue that plays AC/DC's "Thunderstruck" during the intro is going to score high with me...and so they did here. In fact, the mascot, Ozzie the Osprey, was beating a bass drum to the music during the intro. Talk about awesome!
For being a venue not much bigger than my high school gymnasium, the audio system was quite loud, though not enough to pierce your ears. Also, being a smaller venue helps when there's a naturally-occurring smaller crowd, so the sound of 1,000 people in the UNF Arena is worlds louder than one would think.
A large college campus in a nature preserve sounds like paradise...until you realize you need to have a car to get anywhere even mildly entertaining off-campus. When you do finally get off North Florida's grounds, you're closest choices are Florida's infamous strip malls and fast-food joints.
The bright point, however, is you're only about 5 miles from Jacksonville Beach which, as you can probably guess, abuts the Atlantic Ocean. When you look at it like that, it's better than going to school in the Midwest "" or even Gainesville "" isn't it?
This score is relative. I get that it's a smaller school that won't have a lot of potential fans to plop into the seats, which is the reason they built such a small, to-scale stadium in the first place. So, when I give such a score for only about 1,000 people showing, it's because it's well-deserved.
They were raucous, they were loud, and they knew what the hell was going on. In fact, anytime one of the players would make a free throw from the foul line, they'd all yell their trademark "SWOOOOP!" in unison. It just goes to show it's not the size of the crowd that shows but how passionate they are. These guys have that down pat.
For a campus that's located right next to the interstate, it was quite hard to get to. If you come in from the north entrance (as I did), you go through an industrial complex, make a left, go by all the student-only parking lots, drive by Hodges Stadium, go around two roundabouts, drive through the woods, make a left at the light, drive around the campus, then finally get to the garage across the street from the arena...which you find out is student-only. You can probably get away with parking in there like I did anyway; just be courteous and park on the roof and you should be alright.
Once inside, there's only one set of bathrooms "" again, all that's needed "" but the inside is as spacious as possible with the athlete's workout equipment in the main hall, as well.
Well, the 2010-2011 team is about average, as they're in the middle of the Atlantic Sun Conference; keep in mind, however, they just became a Division I school two years ago, so anything out of the basement can be seen as an accomplishment. With a campus as beautiful as it is, and an arena as fun as it is functional, they shouldn't have a problem recruiting more talent; they just need to market themselves much more than they do now.
Before the men's game started, the announcer asked everyone to check their ticket to see if there was a star on the back; if so, you just won $50. No ball to throw in a hoop from center court, no shell games, and definitely no fake sumo-suit fighting: here's $50 just for showing up today. More places, pro and college alike, need more no-strings-attached contests like that.
Once inside, there are numerous mementos and trophies to their accomplishments in all sports, culminating with the Wall of Fame, honoring great athletes from years past, as well as the trophy case, proudly displaying their two Division II national championships in women's tennis.
The entire feel reminded me of all the great memories of my high school's gym: intimate crowd, cheap concessions, the numerous retracted basketball hoops hanging from the ceiling; heck, even the trophy case reminded me of ours (with a little more hardware in theirs, though). It was like stepping back into 12th Grade all over again, for all the right reasons.
UNF Arena may not be as flashy or advanced as the venues of larger schools, but it definitely can hold its own against others across the state and the nation. If I were an alum, I'd be proud to have this venue as the home to my basketball team, and you'd be remiss to miss it; just make sure you won't be ticketed where you finally decide to park.
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