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Official Review by Paul Swaney, Stadium Journey Co-Founder
U.S. Cellular Arena has been part of the fabric of the downtown Milwaukee sports scene since its opening in 1950. Still referred to as "The MECCA" by many residents, the arena has been home to many great moments, the most prominent to which was the Milwaukee Bucks NBA Championship in 1971.
Today the arena is the home to the UW-Milwaukee Panthers basketball team, as well as the Milwaukee Wave of the Major Indoor Soccer League (MISL). Additionally, the venue is the host to concerts and shows throughout the year.
When attending a UW-Milwaukee Panthers basketball game, the arena feels old and over-sized. There may be a lot of history in this building, but the sum experience comes off a little flat. It's not a bad place to catch a game, and the Horizon League usually offers some pretty entertaining basketball, just don't expect anything quite as electric as what may be found next door at the Bradley Center.
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".
I felt inclined, as many visitors to Milwaukee do, to have a sausage of some sort during my visit to U.S. Cellular Arena. At most stands you'll find a choice between the 1/4 pound beef hot dog ($4.25), bratwurst with sauerkraut ($4.50), or Polish ($4.50). There's also more of a gourmet stand where you can find Polish, Spicy Italian sausage, Chipotle Cheddar sausage, or Apple & Gouda sausage (all $6.75). I tried the Chipotle Cheddar sausage, which was spicy and tasty. I also tried the basic $4.50 brat, and would recommend the latter for the best return on your food budget. Sometimes the basics are just the right way to go, and that's the case here.
Other options include several flavors of popcorn, as well as nachos, or pretzels. If you feel like trying some Mexican food, you can find tacos or fajita wraps ($6 each). Pizza is available from Palermo's ($6) which I would recommend skipping.
Because the facility is off campus, alcohol is available. Miller Lite or MGD in two sizes costing $5 or $6.50 are your selections. They have an interesting array of soda, with no Coke or Pepsi to be found. Instead, you can choose between RC, Dr. Pepper, and 7-Up. A small soda costs $3, or there's the souvenir cup size for $5. Bottled water is also an option at $3.50.
Your first impression is a stale atmosphere as you walk through the non-descript, wide concourse surrounded by mostly white brick walls. Make your way to your ticketed spot, and you'll find a chair with a seatback. The seats are theatre-style, and will be comfortable as long as you are average height or shorter. For anyone else, the legroom is less than adequate.
The lights turn off for the home team player introductions, an overused gimmick, especially when the crowd is small. The reported attendance for the game I saw was just over 3,000, meaning there were well over 7,000 empty seats. When you get that kind of ratio, the shenanigans attempted to increase the energy of the building seem hollow. Rather than trying to emulate the Chicago Bulls of the 1990's, the Panthers would be better served by trying to enhance the collegiate atmosphere.
The pep band is above average, perhaps a little saxophone heavy, but good nonetheless. I would have much preferred to hear them at every timeout, rather than the cliche, pumped-in music of the day.
It's also a real shame that more isn't done to signify one of the most important accomplishments in the history of Milwaukee sports (and the building), that '71 NBA Title. Banners commemorating the Panthers appearances in the NCAA Tournament in 2003, 2005, and 2006 are some of the few indications of any successful history in the building.
U.S. Cellular Arena is embedded in the downtown of Milwaukee, so there are plenty of great choices to grab a drink or something to eat as a part of your experience. The Old German Beer House gets my top recommendation amongst the many great choices. They have a casual atmosphere, friendly service, and everything you would want in a prototypical Milwaukee German-inspired joint. All of their beer is straight from Munich, and all of the food I tried was delicious (knockwurst with sauerkraut, cheese curds, and spaetzle). They've also been named best chili in Milwaukee two of the past three years, in case you aren't feeling the German food vibe.
Mader's can be found a little further down Old World Third Street, and is a slightly more upscale version of German food. They've been around for over 100 years and have hosted U.S. Presidents including John F. Kennedy and Gerald Ford.
Major Goolsby's is the traditional place for UW-Milwaukee supporters, and the team often eats their pre-game meal there. It's your typical sports bar, with predictable pub food, and plenty of TVs. It's a good place to hang out, but isn't anything special.
Wherever you end up in downtown Milwaukee, you'll find something you like.
As I mentioned earlier, the arena was only about 30% full during my visit. The fans who were present seemed quick to jump on the referees if a call didn't go their way. At times their homerism seemed to blind them, as there were several very legitimate calls that drew extreme ire from the stands.
The student section was about half full from the looks of it, but didn't contribute much to the team's benefit. One of the drawbacks of playing in an off campus venue is that fans don't always come out in force like you would expect for a conference game.
Parking is far from cost effective. A spot in the garage across the street from the arena cost me $16, more than twice the cost of the least expensive ticket. Moving further away from the arena you can find less expensive options, as each subsequent block roughly translates into a savings of a couple of bucks.
Restrooms are plentiful, but show their age.
Tickets range from $7 up to $32. I wouldn't spend any more than the minimum as you will be able to move down to closer sections without much of a hassle from ushers. The parking situation is what really throws the equation out of whack, and makes the overall experience much more expensive than it's worth. Food prices are very fair, and the neighborhood is fantastic. You'll have fun on a trip to Milwaukee, but it may not be worth what you have to spend.
One extra point to the dance team. It's rare that I'll take notice of such an ensemble, but this group really was good.
I'll also award a point to be able to spend some time in a building where an NBA Championship was won.
Finally, take your time and enjoy downtown Milwaukee, which is becoming more and more of a favorite with each visit that I have made. The Wisconsin Walk of Fame is worth the time as well, featuring several notable names from athletes and other important figures throughout the state.
Member Review by jcamp74 on Feb 04, 2011
As the reviewer mentioned, this arena is much too big for this level of game. If the Panthers were playing in-town rival Marquette, I could understand it, but when the majority of the seats are empty, its hard to have good atmosphere. I'd much prefer a smaller venue with a third as many seats. The pep band was good, but would sound that much better in a smaller gym.
My other comment pertains to the programs with player information. There wasn't one. I had no idea who was playing basketball in front of me. You could buy a UWM-specific program for $5 at the on-site bookstore, but I doubt if that had info on the other team. Its hard to really get into a game if the players on the floor are essentially nameless.
Member Review by CigarBoy on Dec 20, 2011
It is rather dark and old, but I kind of like old, but not so much the dark.
It is in a great location and I love the history of the building.
When Milwaukee is winning, the place is rocking, when they aren't, the fans can't seem to find their way to the Cell.
I gave it s star for the great location and a star for the history of the building.
Member Review by stoffffff on Nov 30, 2013
As a fan of the Panthers and a fan who goes to man games I am pleased that they moved back to the cell. In my opinion a division 1 basketball team should not be playing in a high school gym. Although there are not as many students in important games I'm sure that the students will be there. Now the stadium is old and outdated and it keeps getting worse with the atmosphere being as bland as it is. One great thing is you can get close to some great D1 basketball as the cell has great views anywhere there.
1037 North Old World 3rd Street
Milwaukee, WI 53203
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333 W Kilbourn Ave
Milwaukee, WI 53203