Most people – sports fans or not – are well aware of Jerry Falwell. An international religious leader and pastor of Thomas Road Baptist Church, Falwell opened Lynchburg Baptist College in his hometown of Lynchburg, Virginia in 1971. After changing names twice (the school became Liberty Baptist College in 1976 and Liberty University in 1984), Liberty is now a member of the Big South Conference, and enjoys the largest undergraduate on-campus enrollment of any full-time conference member (over 12,000 students).
Liberty's basketball teams call the Vines Center home. Opened in 1990, the facility represented the university's move into a higher class of athletics, along with their emergence as event hosts. The Vines Center has hosted big-name recording artists, professional basketball and conference tournaments in its 20-plus years. Liberty University students also attend convocation in the arena.
A series of upgrades is in the plans for the Vines Center, with the seating capacity expected to grow by almost 3,000 once the changes are complete. There is no need to wait for the upgrades to enjoy a Liberty game, however. With a family-friendly atmosphere and quality Division I competition in the Big South, the Flames are a great use of your entertainment dollar.
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".
There are not many places from which to buy concessions - in fact, on the night I visited, only one of the two stands was open. Assuming both stands are open, they are on the concourse on either side of center court. The lack of stands does not necessarily translate to lack of choices, however. There is the standard hamburger, sure, but it is joined by the Flames Burger ($5), which is available by the same name at the on-campus Doc's Diner. Doc's menu describes it as "two grilled burgers, stacked with pepper jack cheese, crispy onions, fried jalapeno peppers and our signature 'Fire of the Mountain Sauce'". A veggie burger ($4) is also available, and is an interesting choice for those looking for a reasonably healthy option. Chicken tenders, pizza slices, hot dogs, corn dogs and french fries (with the option to add chili and cheese) round out the "entree" options. None of these choices cost more than $4.
Popcorn ($6 for an extremely large bucket, $3 for a cup), nachos ($3.50), pretzels ($3), peanuts ($3), candy ($1.50) and chips ($1.50) are the snack options. The popcorn bucket is bigger than what one would normally expect to find in a movie theater, and it is probably better to share with the kids or whomever accompanies you to the game. Sodas ($5 for a large, $3 for a medium, $2 for a bottle), frozen lemonade ($2) and coffee or cocoa ($2) will help you wash down your food items. The coffee and cocoa are an absolute must for many Liberty games, as Lynchburg can get extremely cold during the winter.
There are Pepsi machines sprinkled around the concourse, along with a few snack machines. This is a nice touch for the fans, as bottled sodas are actually cheaper in the machines ($1.50), and may help cut down on your wait time in line.
Though the game I attended took place over Christmas break (more on this later), fans at a Liberty game certainly get the feeling of a big-time collegiate atmosphere. There are video boards in the end zone area of the coliseum, as well as a four-sided video scoreboard above center court. The scoreboard shows in-game video for all games for which the Flames Sports Network is in attendance, as well as commercials and other video content. The public address system is not too loud or invasive, but the sound echoes a bit as you get closer to the floor. This makes announcements somewhat difficult to hear.
A lot of the arena is general admission seating. This is great for those who like seeing the game from different angles and wandering around throughout. The available mobility may be good for some, though. Despite the seats being replaced just a few years ago, they are not padded in the general admission sections. If it is comfort you seek, try to sit in one of the premium seats. For just a few dollars more, you can sit in a padded seat with a cupholder and a better view of the action.
The school has a pep band - though they were not in attendance on my visit due to the break - and a mascot named Sparky. Sparky is a costumed eagle who is quite popular with Liberty students and sports fans alike. Though the school's official nickname is the Flames, the eagle became the mascot in 1980.
The team enters the floor through a tunnel in the open end zone, surrounded by smoke. This makes for quite the interesting effect. Flame effects are used throughout the game, and fans are made aware of this before the opening tip. Flames shoot up in the corner after each player in the starting lineup is introduced, as well as after each converted free throw and three-pointer.
Liberty University is just minutes from Wards Road (US Highway 29 Business), one of the primary areas in Lynchburg for shopping and dining. Chain restaurants representing almost every cuisine imaginable line the roadside areas, along with a number of big-box stores, hotels and other outposts. This should satisfy fans of all ages and preferences.
Ledo Pizza is one of the options in the Wards Crossing area, and it is one pizza fans need to try. Founded in Maryland, Ledo offers a slightly different take on the standard pie. The sauce is a bit sweeter than conventional pizza chains, the crust is more flaky and the pizza is served on cafeteria-style trays. Sandwiches, salads, pasta and appetizers are also available on the Ledo menu. Doc's Diner and Macado's are a couple of minutes closer to the arena, and offer mostly traditional American fare. Doc's Diner is open based on the university's schedule, so be sure to call ahead if this is your preferred destination.
If you have a car, you may want to take a side trip to La Villa on Timberlake Road. Lynchburg is not exactly a haven for Italian food, but La Villa offers some of the best in town. The ownership and staff are super-friendly, taking the time to stop by your table and talk during your meal. The prices are also quite reasonable, considering the portion sizes.
It has already been established that our visit to Liberty took place during Christmas break for the students. Because of this, the attendance was quite sparse. This was to be expected, however.
The fans who were in the seats on our visit were a quite lively bunch, both among the Liberty faithful and the small contingent representing the visiting team. The Liberty supporters engage in the typical voicing of grievances toward the referees and playful teasing of a few of the opponents, though they do it in a respectful way and never get personal.
Liberty has enjoyed quite the home-court advantage in recent years, and one would imagine that the announced expansion of the Vines Center - along with more wins by the home team, frankly - would get more fans in the stands. This is a facility that deserves more fans in the seats, so the hope is that this will take place in short order.
If your travels lead you to central Virginia by air, you will be pleasantly surprised to see that Lynchburg Regional Airport is just 5-10 minutes from campus. Though the flight selection into LYH is considerably limited, the airport's proximity is quite nice. The campus is easily reached via taxi or your rental car.
While we are speaking of easy access, it should be noted that the Vines Center is within steps of US Highways 460 and 29. These are the two major east-west and north-south (respectively) highways in the city, and you can be on your way to anywhere in Lynchburg or surrounding cities in minutes.
Parking is free for Liberty games, and there are numerous surface lots in which to leave your vehicle. Some of the lots involve a bit of a walk, however, so be sure to bring a warm coat and gloves if necessary, or head for one of those cups of coffee or cocoa before going to your seat inside the arena.
GLTC Transit offers bus service around the city of Lynchburg, including several routes around the campus. The 4F route travels to River Ridge Mall and the university, among other destinations. The transit company's website outlines each available route in considerable detail, so if you wish to ride the bus, this is quite helpful.
Finally, the concourse inside the arena rings around the top of the seating bowl, offering plenty of room to move and still see the game. The only exception to this is the concession areas, as they are both partially obscured by the fixed camera positions for television coverage. Bathrooms are available at several intervals throughout the concourse, and the facilities are clean and properly-maintained.
Liberty offers a number of ticketing options for their fans, and all of them allow the opportunity to see Division I basketball at a very reasonable price. General admission seats are $10, with premium seats (the aforementioned padded seats in the center of the arena) at $15 per game. The university offers discounts for "Local Heroes" (firemen, policemen, emergency responders), seniors (60+) and youth in both seating levels.
Using the usual test, Liberty fans can purchase a game ticket, hot dog, soda, parking and a program for under $20. This is at or below the cost of most other venues in the Big South Conference, and is a great value. When considering the cost of a movie or other entertainment options around the city, one is left to wonder why more fans don't come see exciting basketball in a family-friendly venue just down the street from most of those other options.
Liberty may not have an extensive history, but what they do have is honored in a number of ways around the arena. Banners honoring the success of the men's and women's teams hang above the arena's court, while additional nods to the school's past athletic successes take up residence in each end zone. A trophy case lines one of the walls, showcasing championship teams and past stars. The other wall features plaques for the Liberty Athletics Hall of Fame, All-American athletes and retired jerseys across Flames sports.
Speaking of retired jerseys, one prominently hangs above the tunnel through which the Flames enter the court. That jersey is the number 71, in honor of founder Jerry Falwell. This number commemorates the year in which the school opened, and "71" or "1971" are on display across the campus in many different forms.
There is not a specific area for kids to play inside the arena, but kids are often involved in the promotions that take place throughout the game. These promotions include a putting contest sponsored by Chick-fil-A and the "find the fifty" promotion, in which a blindfolded fan crawls across the floor in search of a $50 bill, led only by the cheers of the fans. Originality is a tough thing to find in promotions, but it was amusing to see both of these for the first time.
We have mentioned giveaway items in this space on a number of occasions, and Liberty does their fair share of giving things away. The basketball staff took to the floor several times during my visit to throw t-shirts and foam basketballs into the stands during breaks. There was quite the scramble for these items in several sections. Foam basketballs are also thrown into the crowd after each successful three-point shot.
The Flames' radio broadcasts are carried over 88.3 FM in Lynchburg, as well as other stations along the Flames Sports Network. Alan York handles play-by-play for the radio broadcasts, while Ray Jones and former Liberty player Tim Scarborough work on the television broadcasts. The Flames Sports Network telecasts are frequently carried by MASN/MASN2, ESPN3 and many other national outlets.
Finally, we need to mention the friendly nature of everyone at Liberty. From the ticket windows to the concession workers to the gameday staff, Liberty clearly appreciates those who visit the Vines Center. It is always nice to see venues remember that they are also in the customer service business, and Liberty gets it right.
If you have never visited Lynchburg, Virginia before, you will find that Lynchburg is very much Liberty University, and Liberty is very much Lynchburg. The school's partnership with the city has been responsible for a large part of Lynchburg's growth, and Liberty has been a great "neighbor" for Lynchburg. The Vines Center has been a tremendous addition to central Virginia, and the only hope is that the fans continue to be an equally great neighbor to Liberty basketball.
An expansive facility designed as a community center for the late Jerry Falwell's growing empire, but that does not produce a good atmosphere for Big South basketball.
8109 Timberlake Rd
Lynchburg, VA 24502
3744 Candlers Mountain Rd
Lynchburg, VA 24502