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Official Review by John McCurdy, Stadium Journey Regional Correspondent
Mercer’s University Center isn’t multi-purpose; it’s myriad-purpose. Where the Bears play their basketball games is part of a larger complex — 230,000 square feet — with the school’s workout facilities, plenty of offices and meeting rooms, an air-rifle range, and an indoor pool, among other amenities.
This must be nice for students, as you’ve got a clear go-to spot on campus, but the fact that there’s so much else going on in the building only adds to the sense of scatter-brained-ness that will be described below.
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The concessions inside are minimal: a single main stand offering nachos, popcorn, pretzels, hot dogs, potato chips, and candy is supplemented by outside vendors’ stands for coffee, wings, and pizza. My negativity will stop there, though; there’s not room for much else on the crowded concourse, which also serves as standing room for spectators.
All this is mollified to a degree by the fact that just down the hall in the Center is a small student food court also open around game time. Here you can pick up Chick-fil-A (Express), Subway, or a burger from "Burger Studio." I saw several folks walk right into the arena with this "outside" food, so one can more or less count these three mini-eateries as a part — albeit distant — of the overall offerings.
The lobbies of the Center are particularly tastefully decorated, with display cases outside the gates honoring the pasts of each Mercer sport and portraits and other works of art dotting the walls elsewhere. The gym itself largely continues the feng shui, though in a different way — strong presence of the school colors of black and orange has the décor rivaling that of a professional team’s stadium.
But then again, simply setting the stage for basketball doesn’t do it for me in this category. There has to be an effort to make the focus largely on the game; I can understand the side distractions here and there, but the amount of people milling about on the concourse — in full view from any seat — is unnerving as a seated fan.
Finally, they did well enough with the promos, your usual cheering for free pizza and t-shirt cannons, but in this instance none of this did anything to enhance the experience.
First to heap a little praise on the city of Macon, which from among the large selection of locales in Georgia I’ve had the pleasure of visiting for Stadium Journey had undoubtedly the coolest feel. No, I didn’t have time to explore every corner, but from what I did see, the way new developments have been incorporated into the old town is beautiful.
In terms of food, burger-lovers need look no further than The Rookery, which not only has a wide selection but also a terrific, hip air to it. The Downtown Grill is more of a step-up and offers more variety, though I don’t know that I’d really take a date to a basketball game after that. If you’re looking for something outside of town, you’ll find a whole lot of chains but also the Back Burner Restaurant a few blocks west.
As the reader may have gathered, I was nonplussed with the number of folks just walking around on the concourse in the middle of the game, completely detached from the action. I’m sorry, did you come to watch, or get some light exercise?
Now, that’s not Mercer Athletics’ fault entirely, but I’d say something has to be done to visually separate the crowds waiting for food, chatting each other up or playing tag (quite literally saw some kids doing just that). The architecture is limiting, I understand, but perhaps a curtain could be hung? Trying to concentrate, even in the lower half of the bowl, is just too difficult.
I can say that there were some appropriately enthusiastic fans dressed in what at least approximated team colors, but that was really only in the student section and the reserved seats.
Coming from Atlanta or the metro area, the route is easy enough: you’re going south on Interstate 75. This would be a traffic problem for evening weeknight contests, but then again, I’m not sure many of the citified crowd would opt for this over a Hawks or Yellow Jackets game.
From Savannah, it’s I-16 all the way, and from the southern reaches of the state, just go north on I-75 and start paying attention at the I-475 interchange. But approaching from the east or west, the path is no way near as clear.
From Augusta or South Carolina, you might take I-20 to the west and then get on I-75 or go south on U.S. Route 1 (and then US 221, and then State Route 78, and then US 319) down to Dublin and then get on I-16. From Columbus or Alabama, you’ll likely end up on SR 22, and from LaGrange, I’d use SR 109 to SR 18 back to SR 109 back to SR 18 (sounds silly, I know) to get to I-75 south.
Once you’ve found the campus, the real problem becomes apparent: the University Center is buried in the heart of it all with very little signage to guide the traveler, and parking is equally unclear and disorganized. Don’t look for a deck, as you’re only wasting your time; find the first surface spot within manageable walking distance and take it.
At $5 for reserved seating ($3 for general admission), the price is right, especially considering no matter which game you’re interested in — the women’s or the men’s — the other comes with the purchase, as most home dates are double-headers.
The issue is, of course, that unless you live quite close or really love and passionately follow Atlantic Sun basketball, driving in for dinner and a game, let alone just the game, is not worth it. The overall enjoyment even a fairly-devoted basketball fan would get out of this is just not worth the time.
Toss in a point for the campus — which you’ll at least get to see some of on the trip from your parking spot — and how well it blends into the city. It’s got bits of old and bits of new, just like Macon, and balances college-town with mini-metropolis quite well.
One more for the variety of slogans and demonyms tossed around, regardless of their originality. At least the lone concession stand in the home of the Bears proclaims loudly, "Feed the Bear!" as the "Mercernaries" and "Mercerians" (I was unable to tell if there was actually a difference) occasionally glance at the athletic event that happens to be in process.
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562 Mulberry Street Ln
Macon, GA 31201
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