Keeping up with the theme of the beautiful Southern California campus, San Diego State University (SDSU) is located on a mesa that overlooks the surrounding communities. The theme of the arena is likely one of the best in all of sports. The official name of the venue is Viejas Arena at the Aztec Bowl and it is most known for being home to the SDSU Aztecs men's basketball team.
The arena officially opened in July of 1997 as Cox Arena (named after a local cable company) and offers a capacity of 12,414. In 2009, the arena was renamed to a much more interesting name, Viejas Arena, due to a ten year naming agreement with the Viejas Band of Kumeyaay Indians. Though the intent of the name is likely to promote a casino east of campus, the naming agreement does not allow the use of "casino" or references to gambling on anything related to the actual arena.
The "Aztec Bowl" portion of the name is in regards to the football stadium that the arena was built atop. The SDSU football program played at the Aztec Bowl until moving to Qualcomm Stadium in 1967. As fans approach the arena, they will notice the concrete bleachers that are still intact today. The bleachers remained in place nearly a century after the opening because the Aztec Bowl had been named a historic site in 1994. The Bowl received such an honor due to being opened since 1936 and because it was the site of a notable John F. Kennedy speech in 1963 in front of 30,000 spectators.
Probably the most notable SDSU basketball alum comes in the form of former NBA player Michael Cage, who played at Peterson Gymnasium while serving as an Aztec. During the 1984 Draft, Cage was selected with the 14th pick by the Los Angeles Clippers . The "Windexman" (cleaning the glass) went on to play 14 NBA seasons and even led the NBA in rebounding during the 1988 season. The rebounding title is a particularly compelling story as Cage and Charles Oakley were both vying for the "chairman of the boards" nickname during the season and Cage needed 28 on the final day of the season to win the award. He would go on to grab 30 rebounds and marginally beat Oakley.
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".
Viejas Arena offers one of the more interesting concession areas in all of sports as it is the inverse of most other venues. Here, the action is played indoors and fans have to go outdoors and become exposed to the elements to receive their food and beverage. This model is very similar to the San Diego Padres and PETCO Park, capitalizing on the rather predictable and beautiful weather in "America's Finest City."
Most of the permanent stands offer hot dogs ($4), nachos ($5.50), chili cheese nachos ($6.50), pizza ($5.50), chili bread bowl ($4), tortilla wrap ($5.50), "Cali" turkey ciabatta ($6.50), chicken caesar wrap ($5.50), salad ($5), PB&J ($3), soft pretzel ($3.75), peanuts ($3.75), candy ($3.50), cookie ($1.50), chips ($1.50), frozen lemonade ($3.50), and kettle corn ($5).
There are also a variety of temporary stands including Belinda's Cocina, offering burritos ($6.50-$7), tacos ($6-$7), quesadillas ($5-$7), or nachos ($7). "Combo plates" were also on the menu for $8, complete with rice, beans, and a fresh corn tortilla.
Hunter's Steakhouse was another temporary stand found near the main entrance. Here fans could pick up a tri-tip sandwich ($8), chicken sandwich ($7), hot link (with mushrooms and onions $7), cheese or veggie burger ($5), potato salad ($2), or pinquito beans ($2).
Other stands offered Panini sandwiches, buttered popcorn ($3), mini donuts, and Jamaican food (jerk chicken, curry chicken, burgers, wraps, pasta, rice, fries).
Lastly, Cold Stone Ice Cream was served immediately inside many of the automatic doors at the top of the arena. These stands offered all sorts of interesting flavors that were anything but chocolate and vanilla.
The beverage options included Pepsi products (22 oz for $3.75, 32 oz for $4.25, or souvenir size for $5), bottled water ($2.75), Gatorade ($3.50), coffee or hot tea ($2.75), cappuccino ($3), hot chocolate ($3), wine ($6), domestic beer ($8), or micro beer (strangely at the same price as domestic at $8). A temporary stand also served a unique item in bubble tea.
With limited exposure to the SDSU program over the past few years, I really had no idea of what to expect upon entering Viejas Arena. Approximately 10 minutes after taking my seat, the PA announcer welcomed fans to the "Madhouse on the Mesa" and one of the more entertaining sporting experiences began.
As the players entered the court for pre-game warm-ups with lots of loud background music, I noticed that the seating was dimmed and only the court was illuminated. I thought that perhaps the Aztecs were taking an approach similar to the Los Angeles Lakers at Staples Center. Eventually the lights all came on and led to an interesting build-up to tip-off. Just like the football program, the players entered the court to the tune of "Welcome to the Jungle." The band then played a song to which the entire crowd clapped and led into the song "We Ready."
The player introductions were probably one of my favorite of all-time. All arena lights were dimmed while a few spotlights roamed the court and seating sections. There were no pyrotechnics or video board montage, but rather music and the starters each dancing to the music before taking to the court. What I appreciated most about this is that it appeared that the players looked really loose and as if they were having loads of fun. The fans provided a near deafening reaction to each player announced. The pep band played the National Anthem and I do not recall ever hearing so many fans actually sing along to the pregame ritual.
If fans needed any more hype leading up to tip-off, the audio system started playing the song "Uprising" by Muse and most members of the crowd sang along to "They will stop degrading us, they will not control us, we will be vic-torious!"
The fans participated in a slow clap that lasted for roughly the first 40 seconds of the competition and all were on their feet until the first Aztec basket.
The Aztec Warrior was quickly spotted on the court, sometimes referred to as "Monty Montezuma." Rather than the sword carried by USC's, Tommy Trojan, the warrior carries a shield and a conch shell, often blowing into the shell during the contest. During the 2010 season, another mascot made its debut. A jaguar named Zuma was also spotted during the game, often hanging near the student section and helping to get them involved.
Other interesting items adding to the atmosphere was the student section dancing to the song "Apache (Jump On It)," the singing of the fight song (with words displayed on scoreboard), and the students doing the "we're not worthy" bow when a big play occurred.
Some of the chants heard included "Let's Go Aztecs," "S-D-S-U," and the typical "ooooooooo" sound heard at many arenas nationwide.
While I do not necessarily believe the Aztecs needed to offer additional promotions to enhance the atmosphere, they certainly did. Among the promos during the game were the Papa John's t-shirt launch, a dice roll for cash, a half court shot attempt, find the hidden basketball, and the typical Chevron toy car challenge.
Already mentioned is the beautiful location of campus that allows students and fans to get gorgeous views of the surrounding area. The drawback however is that there are not many establishments immediately nearby.
A popular nearby place to watch the game is the State Street Grill. Many say that it offers the best sushi in San Diego.
Another place that is wildly popular with the local fans is Woodstock's Pizza. The health nuts rave about the whole wheat crust, while others simply love the cinnabread or wildebread. They offer a variety of delicious pizzas including "All Meat Orgy" and "Garlic Bird." They offer a promotional pint night in which patrons pay $5 for the first pint and then $2 or less for subsequent drinks. Another perk of the establishment is the vintage video games offered inside.
McGregor's Grill and Ale House is open until 2 AM nightly. It offers all sorts of saloon games and has a rather extensive menu that includes breakfast from 11 AM to 1 PM.
Some of the other nearby locations include Tiki Hut Island Grill, La Casita Mexican Grill, Oshi's Kitchen, L&L Hawaiian Barbeque, and Trujillo's Taco Shop.
Another monumental aspect of the SDSU experience was the fans. I immediately gained appreciation for them prior to tipoff as it literally felt as if the arena was shaking with all of the fans jumping up and down and yelling out their support for the Aztecs.
The best reaction from the fan base came from the SDSU free throws. If an Aztec player made a free throw, all of the fans would begin to let out the "Ric Flair Woo." This became a common sports tradition in New Orleans when Baron Davis and now Chris Paul scored a point, but the Aztec fans have taken it to another level. After a second made free throw, literally 70 percent of the arena starts letting out the "Woo" and that continued for a good 20 seconds afterwards. A clip of Ric Flair was even shown on the videoboard near the start of the second half where he gave his famous line: "To be the man, you gotta beat the man! Woo!"
Like many other fan bases, the student section turned their backs during the opposing team introductions, but I noticed it here more than any other place due to the sharp incline of their seating and proximity of the seating to the opponent's bench.
The opposing team also certainly noticed the fans. They unfortunately had to enter and leave the court very close to the student section and were often greeted by boos during each trip. When the opposing team called timeout, the student section would sing "The Hey Song" with the add-in of "you suck" while pointing to the nearby bench. When the opponent would foul a member of the SDSU team, a drum beat could be heard and the fans would count the number of fouls aloud.
The university is located northeast of downtown San Diego and most fans will have to take Interstate 8, 15, or 805 to get to the arena. Once you arrive to the campus, you'll do some additional driving through some smaller roads to get to the arena.
Most fans seem to park in Lot K or parking structure 5 for a fee of $10. This fee seems a bit zesty considering there is plenty of space for parking around campus. It seems $5 would suffice.
Once you have your ticket scanned, you will notice one of the most unique stadium layouts. The concessions and restrooms are outside, open to the elements and surrounded by trees and other plants.
Fans can then go through the automatic sliding doors to find themselves at the very top of the arena, with all of the seating below them. The concourse here is rather small and tends to get quickly congested.
There are no suites in the arena and seating completely surrounds the basketball court, creating a rather intimidating atmosphere at all ends of the venue. Most seats are bucket seats with cupholders, but some of the higher seating offers nicer bench options. At the corners of the arena, the seating sections seem to spell out a "V" with the walkways. I doubt this was intentional as the venue started out as Cox Arena (rather than Viejas Arena), but is still an interesting touch (photo above).
For those of you with more disposable income, there are two rows of courtside seats opposite the player benches. There are also three long rows running the length of the court behind the player benches that I assume are for the donors or sponsors of the school as compensation for lack of suites. This unfortunately detracts from the experience as it breaks up the continuity of the seating. Replace these rows with permanent seating and I'm sure the venue would have the Utah Jazz-feel of fans being on top of the court.
The east end of the arena had the student section, band, and dance team. At most schools throughout college basketball, the dance team stands/sits at one end of the court, but here they occupy some of the most prime real estate in the venue. What's worse is that they were not even in their seats for a good portion of the game. I would recommend displacing them to a sideline, moving the band to their spot and adding more "fan" seating behind the basket to build the intimidation factor for opponents.
A large scoreboard is positioned at the center of the arena and can be easily viewed from any angle. The beautiful high-definition scoreboard offers video scorekeeping with all sorts of player stats and in-game images while a video ribbon beneath takes care of the advertising and doesn't detract from the value of the scoreboard. There is also a smaller "old-school" scoreboard at each end of the arena, catering to fans walking the concourse.
Even with a full house on this very evening, the restrooms were plentiful and rather easily accessible from any automatic exit door.
This is a tough category to rate based on the 2010-11 season. If a fan purchased a ticket at the beginning of the season for face value ($20 for sideline reserved, $15 for upper sideline, and $10 for upper baseline/general admission), I would call it one of the best values in all of sports.
Unfortunately however, most tickets were purchased during the beginning of SDSU success and many of the resale values became absurd. Tickets against top opponents were priced at well above $100 for a single general admission seat.
If a fan is able to secure a seat at face value, it is certainly a 5/5 value. The concession prices are on par and the parking is a little steep considering the circumstances.
With the recent success, I would assume ticket prices will rise for the upcoming season.
I have already touched on many of my favorite extras relating to this venue. Being located on a mesa, the outdoor concourse, "V" seating section, and steep seating incline all provide this venue with extras that you would find at many other places.
The old concrete bleachers that can be seen outside of the arena also offer a really interesting touch. A modern venue built atop a historic landmark. They definitely reminded me of the Aztec pyramid steps that I've seen in many images of over the years. Fans can find the historic land marker outside of the gated parking lot below the arena.
Fans can find the SDSU banners for men's basketball at the west end of the arena. Here, the banners of the four Mountain West Conference championship banners (2002, '06, '10, '11) and a banner commemorating the school's seven NCAA Tournament appearances (1975, '76, '85, 2002, '06, '10, '11)
The basketball experience was definitely a stark contrast to football program experience at Qualcomm Stadium. Whereas the football team seemingly did not have an identity at Qualcomm, the basketball team offers one of the most unique and entertaining experience in all of sports.
This was, without a shadow of a doubt, the best college basketball experience in all of Southern California (14 venues). That is definitely a bold statement, considering the UCLA Bruins and Pauley Pavilion are only two hours north of the SDSU campus. I stand behind this statement and really cannot wait to experience it again next season.
Follow Drew's journeys through Southern California on twitter @Big10Drew
I love this place!!!
5131 College Ave
San Diego, CA 92115
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San Diego, CA 92115
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