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Official Review by Jim Dietrich, Stadium Journey Regional Correspondent
For the longest time, Tampa, St. Petersburg, Clearwater, and the surrounding metropolitan area of Tampa Bay were all nothing more than a place to vacation at the beach or retire to when your years caught up with you. This is why, even with a population of over one million in 1970, the area struggled to get professional sports into the area until 1975, when the Tampa Bay Rowdies became the first professional franchise to call Tampa Bay, and Tampa specifically, home; the Buccaneers came shortly thereafter in 1976.
This was also true for entertainment venues. Because the market didn't seem to warrant it, the largest arena in the Tampa Bay area was in St. Petersburg. The Bayfront Center was built in 1965 and played host to the region's concerts and events, though it only allowed 7,500 people in at any given time to do this. Tampa, on the other side of Tampa Bay, didn't have any facilities of their own - save small theatres and club settings - to house these events, so if a Tampan wanted to see a concert, off to St. Pete they drove.
Enter the University of South Florida.
Deciding they needed both a new place to house their basketball team, as well as a large-scale concert venue on the Tampa side of the bay, the Sun Dome was opened amid much fanfare in 1980, making it the "de facto" main concert venue of the region, with indoor events finally accessible to over 10,000 people. It remained the main venue for Tampa Bay residents until the opening of the Ice Palace (now known as the Tampa Bay Times Forum) in 1996.
While it may not play center stage to the bulk of the region's headliners anymore, a $35 million renovation in 2011-12 ensures the university's hub will still receive big name shows and last as the basketball team's home court for years to come.
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".
For the most part, typical stadium food is the norm here. The people serving it are super-friendly and genuinely enthusiastic to help, so that's a plus there. One thing I did see of-note were "frozen chocolate bananas". I don't eat bananas, so I can't comment on how good they were, but it was definitely a departure from the norm. Otherwise, not too much else to report here, except the unusual disclaimer that despite the fact it's an on-campus facility, beer is actually available, so indulge responsibly.
If only the fans showed up....
I'll address that later, but this facility barely looks a decade old, let alone three. The renovations the school undertook did wonders for the arena. In addition to the central score/video board over the court, there are four video boards, one in each corner of the Sun Dome. In addition, there are long LED boards posting messages and ads along the rafters on either side of the arena. The seats are comfortable, all with a drink holder, and there is not a bad sightline anywhere I sat. Heck, even every single one of the employees were nothing but smiles!
The point off goes to the fact that the upper deck was off-limits in this game (nothing too unusual), and yet the facility was STILL empty with just the 100- and 200-levels open. Even if we were all consolidated to the 100-level, the arena is too big for such a small crowd. I'll touch more on the fans later, but even with the band trying as they might to get everyone pumped, it was a bit deflating, to say the least.
The University of South Florida (side note: when opened in 1956, it was the most southerly of the public universities in Florida, hence the seemingly misplaced name) is an urban campus located in both the northern reaches of Tampa proper and the neighboring city of Temple Terrace. Because of this, there is no shortage of things to do around the campus grounds. In addition to the stereotypical Florida strip malls, University Mall is just to the west of the campus, so between the two, there is no shortage of restaurants, bars, and shops.
For something a little more off-beat, check out the Museum of Science and Industry across Fowler Avenue from the eastern entrance to the campus. Not only is MOSI one of the premier museums in the area, it is also home of the state's only IMAX Dome. If you have never seen a film in an IMAX Dome (as opposed to IMAX in a typical movie theatre), I strongly advise you do so, because it is truly an awe-inspiring experience. Check their website before coming to see if a feature film is playing around your visit.
Another atypical thing to do is check out the Yuengling Brewery not too far from campus. They offer free tours of the entire brewery - from hops to bottling, and everything in between - to all ages Mondays through Saturdays, and even offer free beer samples to 21+ at the end of the tour. There's even a gift shop for those wanting to buy some memorabilia from America's oldest and largest domestic brewer. Check their website for tour times.
Finally, I'd be remiss not to mention campus neighbor Busch Gardens. The area's theme park for 60 years, new rides and attractions make it one of the places to go in the area.
Stuff not in the 10-minute driving radius, like Ybor City, downtown St. Pete, the beaches, etc., round out the reasons why this neighborhood is a perfect "5".
Yes, the men's USF Bulls team didn't make even the NIT, let alone the postseason in 2013 (the women made the NCAA Tourney, though!). Yes, it was 9pm on a Wednesday night when I went. And yes, it was kind of "Floridian cold" that night (though, I'd be hard-pressed to call 45˚F/7˚C in the first week of March "cold" by most standards; it was more hoodie, jeans, and flip-flop weather if you ask me). But, it was a nationally-televised game against UConn in one of the last Big East matchups ever (before realignment takes hold in July). There should have been more than the few hundred who showed.
I'm not saying Bulls fans are bad. They come out in droves for their football team, and you can't go anywhere in Tampa Bay without seeing some green and gold somewhere. And just maybe the above factors did calm everyone's "Bulls Fever" that night. It was, however, quite sad to see the place as empty as it was. Maybe in the 2013-14 season, they'll prove me wrong.
Well, I was prepared to give this category a "4" or "5", considering it's conveniently located off Fowler Avenue, one of the main east-west thoroughfares in north Tampa, and Fowler is easily accessible off both Interstates 75 and 275. From my house in St. Petersburg, I got to the main entrance of USF in about 35 minutes, which is incredible. Then, I got inside the main gates....
All the streets are named "USF [plant name here]" (e.g. USF Maple, USF Oak, etc.), which is okay, but while clearly marked "Sun Dome: Next three signals" on Fowler Avenue, once inside, there isn't a single sign directing you where to go - or if there is, it's not visible at night. So, after aimlessly driving around campus for about 5 minutes, I saw a bunch of cars were turning; I decided to follow them in hopes they were going to the game. They were, thankfully, and I saw my destination. However, they all went to different parking lots, none of which I was allowed in as a non-student. Finally, I found my lot (which, again, wasn't signed as "general parking" or anything; for all I know, it was "VIP parking", as close as it was to the building) in front of the Sun Dome, only to be charged $10 for the privilege of parking there. There might be free lots, but after driving around to find this one, I wasn't going to search.
Once inside, the biggest pet peeve of mine in an arena happens: it's not a 360˚ facility, meaning the concourse dead-ends on both sides. On a night when no one is there, it's nothing more than a convenience issue, but should there be a sellout 10,000+ crowd, having only the one-half of the facility to utilize really makes things problematic, especially since the concourses, while wide, are filled with stanchions for queue management at the concessions that cut the width of the corridors by about half.
Aside from the parking costing $10, I got a ticket for $10, and food is typical of an on-campus facility ($4-$6 range). So, all-in-all, it isn't a wallet-breaker, and in a beautiful facility like this, it is worth the price.
I've already touched on all of these before, but the history as the main concert venue for the Tampa Bay area and the amenities from the "Neighborhood" section makes the extras speak for themselves here.
While the Sun Dome is pushing into its mid-30s and has been surpassed by other, more posh facilities, it still shows why it was the home of the region's largest acts for so many years. The new renovations have extended the life of the facility for decades, and once the Bulls field a high caliber men's team on the court, this could easily become one of the toughest places to play in all of NCAA Division I basketball. Until then, though, it's still a very nice facility that should be visited.
Member Review by sportsroadtrips on Nov 30, 2014
Worst thing here is the $10 parking charge. Other than that, good place with a strong atmosphere and a team that might be fun to watch. Check secondary market for cheap tickets, I sat 6 rows from the court for $8 ($40 face). You might find fans with extras outside. The Sun Dome was renovated in 2012 and it is still shiny. Check out the history of the university along one wall of the concourse.
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