The moniker, "University Arena" does little to get the blood pumping through the average college basketball fan. Call the venue by its more common name, "The Pit," and you get a totally different reaction.
Named by Sports Illustrated as one of the Top 20 venues in all of sports – much less basketball – of the 20th century, The Pit is home to the University of New Mexico men’s and women’s basketball teams. In 2009, it underwent a $60 million renovation that took a year to complete. Some local fans worried that the corporatization of the venue would damage its reputation as one of the most hostile environments for visiting team in all of college basketball. The capacity, once 18,018, was reduced to 15,411 to make way for more suites.
UNM adopted the slogan "A Mile High and Louder Than …" for the 45-year-old venue, which – is a little forced because its reputation precedes the marketing – still rings true.
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".
Concessions were one of the areas that received a big upgrade in the remake. Fans can get pizza, an Angus or green chile cheeseburger with green chile French fries, a pulled pork sandwich, "ultimate" nachos or burritos, and the prices won’t break you.
The nachos run $9 and a slice of pizza costs $5.75 – not cheap but not outrageous. Soft drinks go from $3.75-$6.25, and snacks – popcorn, candy, a big pretzel – range from $3-$5.
Not every concession stand in the arena carries the full menu, so you have to know where you’re going if you want pizza, for example. After a few trips, you can find your way around, but in "big games," lines sometimes move somewhat slowly.
If the decibel level is slightly less than it used to be with the smaller capacity, the difference is negligible. Most dedicated Lobo fans probably can’t tell much difference, anyway, because they’ve probably lost a little of their hearing – having attended so many New Mexico games.
First-time visitors need to be told about the arena ritual that fans stand up to start each half until both teams score. With defensive-minded coach Steve Alford at the Lobo helm, fans typically are standing a little longer than they did in the past.
Fans don’t need any rituals during the rest of the game telling them when to stand. In a close game, the Pit becomes one of the loudest venues in the nation and the crowd gives the home team a distinct advantage, as New Mexico’s 80 percent success rate in the building suggests.
The Pit always was the crown jewel of the University of New Mexico’s south campus on University Boulevard and Avenida Cesar Chavez that includes University Stadium (which houses the UNM football team) and Isotopes Park (home to the Los Angeles Dodgers’ Triple-A baseball team and the Lobo baseball team), but the renovation has given the building’s exterior a palatial look that is unsurpassed as an athletic venue.
Fans don’t need to venture far to visit three of the city’s more popular local restaurants. Dion’s Pizza and Quarters BBQ are within a mile of The Pit, and the Frontier Restaurant is a few miles north and across the street from the main campus on Central Avenue. A mortuary, however, is also a neighbor to the Pit, residing across the street from Quarters.
Coaches Bar and Grill and Route 66 Diner are a few miles west of the main campus, giving fans plenty of pregame and postgame dining options.
One of the truly mystifying facts about Albuquerque as a sports town is that the same fans who show up with such an indifferent attitude – or don’t show up at all -- at University Stadium for a Lobo football game can walk 500 feet across the street and transform into the some of the most loyal maniacs in all of American sport.
The Pit opened in December, 1966, and has become an integral part of Albuquerque culture. Almost every game is an event. Saint Louis and former Utah coach Rick Majerus has compared the Lobos to the Los Angeles Lakers in terms of importance to their respective cities.
The student section is vocal and brings the requisite newspapers to read while the opposing team’s starting five is introduced.
Few venues across the country hold a greater home-court advantage than the Pit, thanks to its fans.
Most fans coming to the arena from more than a few miles away are trained to take Interstate 25 to the Avenida Cesar Chavez exit, which creates a bit of a bottleneck an hour before the game. But those innovative souls who drive to the next exit, Gibson, usually can come up from the south side of the Pit and find parking spots without too much hassle.
The school does a good job with police handling traffic into the parking lots around the venue, and most people can get in and out of the arena in a reasonable amount of time.
Single-game ticket prices start at $17 for adults and $14 for kids – the similar prices indicating that the school knows it doesn’t have to bend over backwards to get families into the arena because it will sell the tickets, regardless.
The school does its due diligence in marketing to the fans, but really the fans bring an energy to The Pit that helps create excitement during the game. When you have to yell to your companion in the next seat to have a conversation during the game, you know you’re at a big-time event.
UNM originally did have an image problem because it started off with a perceived favoritism toward its suite patrons because it allows those fans access to alcohol, but it has alleviated some of those concerns by reducing club seat prices on occasion.
The school does the usual things during breaks at games with fan shooting contests, T-shirt throws and other timeout fillers seen at most college basketball games. The school should be commended for installing big screens at the north and south ends of the arena that allow fans to follow the action if they can’t see the actual court because everyone else is standing up – which is a frequent occurrence.
The Pit was also host to the 1983 Final Four, the championship that saw North Carolina State's Lorenzo Charles catch and put in an air ball at the buzzer, sending coach Jim Valvano scurrying around the court in disbelief and joy. The Pit will host 1st and 2nd round games for the 2012 NCAA Tournament as well.
New Mexico basketball is relevant on a national level because of The Pit. Though the school has never advanced to a Sweet 16 in the NCAA Tournament, the basketball team plays to capacity or near capacity crowds at the venue on a regular basis. The success of the program needs to catch up with the popularity of The Pit.
From an exposure and financial standpoint, building The Pit may have been the university’s greatest accomplishment.
It is a shame in one sense that the $60 million renovation cut into the capacity of the arena because fewer fans get to share in "the event" that each game becomes during the year. But school officials have brought The Pit into the 21st century without changing the culture of the event. It’s a testament to the popularity of the program that a Lobo basketball game remains the biggest event in Albuquerque – no matter how grand the corporate makeover.
Photos attributed to PerryPlanet of Wikipedia.
If you are a college basketball fan and have never been to a game in The PIT, then you are really missing out. Intense and LOUD, the fans know the game. It can literally blow your mind how LOUD it can get. Measured at 118db (the pain theshold is 120), it will remind you of those old Led Zeppelin concerts!
I've had the opportunity to visit a handful of arenas around the country- NBA and college, and I have to say, this is a one-of-a-kind experience. Crazy fans, unique design for a stadium, too. Food is a little over-priced and alcohol is only allowed in the club section.
801 Yale Boulevard SE
Albuquerque, NM 87106
1600 Gibson Blvd SE
Albuquerque, NM 87106
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