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Official Review by Jason Bartel, Stadium Journey Regional Correspondent
The J. Lawrence Walkup Skydome has been home to the Northern Arizona University football, basketball, and indoor track and field programs since 1977. It also plays host to local high school football games, Arizona Cardinals training camp, and many other events throughout the year. The field level sits at 6,980 feet above sea level, which is second only to Wyoming’s War Memorial Stadium.
After the 2010 season, the building underwent a massive renovation project, which dropped capacity to 10,000 from 15,000, but has made the dome much more modern and more fan-friendly. It did away with the bench seating that was at each end of the field, and replaced it with much more comfortable seating, and a better look than it previously had. This renovation also added a large opening in the concourse at the 50 yard line on both sides where fans can now see the field, and improvements to the press boxes, concourses, bathrooms, athletic offices, locker rooms, and a brand new video screen in the south endzone.
The NAU football team plays in the newly expanded Big Sky Conference, which is in the FCS subdivision of Division 1. All Northern Arizona athletics teams play in the Big Sky except swimming and diving, which competes in the WAC.
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 is a very limited selection of food, just the standard hot dogs, nachos, popcorn and sodas. Pricing is very reasonable for a sporting event though, with everything costing right around 3 dollars. The quality is very good too. NAU is a Pepsi school, and has been for a very long time.
The Skydome is a very unique place to take in a college football game. Being one of 11 indoor college football stadiums in the country, it offers something that not many places can. It's good to know that on a freezing cold Flagstaff day, you can still go be comfortable for a few hours and watch some Lumberjack football.
The student section known as the NAU Lumberyard, is in the middle of the field on the west side. There is also the traditional Chain Gang, which is a group of students that are basically the student section leaders. Before each game, one Chain Gang member puts an axe into a stump out in the middle of the field, which signals the football team to come onto the field for pregame intros. The team enters from the north endzone through a tunnel made by the Lumberjack Marching Band and cheer squads, and their bench is on the west side in front of the students.
The overall feel of the Skydome is much more modern after the massive renovation project, which is a very good thing. The concourses have a much better look to them, and the entire playing field area looks much nicer now too. Having the open concourse where people enter on either side of the stadium is also a very welcome addition, giving the entire stadium a much more open, brighter feel to it.
The main scoreboard that has the video board is located in the south endzone. There is also a scoreboard in the north endzone, but the one in the south endzone is capable of showing instant replays. After each NAU score, Louie the Lumberjack is hoisted up on his traditional pushup board, and does as many pushups as the team has points. For each NAU first down, after the PA announcer says "and that's good enough for another NAU...", the fans yell out "FIRST DOWN". Also, the PA announcer is sort of amusing after a player gets shaken up on a play. When the player starts coming off the field, he wishes them well and hopes they come back into the game. For each opposing team's third down, they play a recording of Carmina Burana over the loud speakers, which is cool the first time, and annoying every time after that.
There is certainly nothing worth going to before or after games that is walking distance from the Skydome. However, a short drive north will take you to downtown Flagstaff, which has some great local tastes for fans to enjoy. NAU is very closely tied to Granny's Closet, which has many coaches' shows and viewing parties throughout the year for any Lumberjack athletic event. It is located on Historic Route 66, just a couple minutes away from the Skydome. One of my favorite places close by is Fratelli's Pizza, which has great pizza, and enormous slices of it. Beaver Street Brewery is also a good choice, and so is Lumberyard Brewing Company. All of these places are on the south side of the railroad tracks; there are also more choices if you go to the north side of the tracks and along Route 66.
Some tailgating goes on in the parking lots directly south of the dome, but not very much. For the away fans, there are also many hotels that are close to the stadium to the west, including La Quinta, Hilton, and pretty much all the other major chains.
Even with the team doing well this year, the attendance still isn't quite where it should be for football games. The student section was not very crowded, but they do have all of their chants down. The visiting fans section is in the southeast corner of the stadium. Montana and Weber State fans are the least welcome in Flagstaff, but with the addition of Southern Utah to the Big Sky, they may take that place at the top of the list being so close to Flagstaff in comparison to the rest of the conference.
The Walkup Skydome is located in the southeastern part of NAU's campus, with the best streets leading to it being Pine Knoll and Lone Tree. If you are planning on flying into Flagstaff, the only option is to fly US Airways from Sky Harbor in Phoenix. The Skydome is only 2 minutes off of I-17, which ends at the NAU exit (McConnell Dr.). There are Park and Ride lots right off of the 17, but it's not really worth it. All of the main parking lots are on the south side of the dome, with the main general lot being on the south side of Pine Knoll. Special parking passes are needed for the lots that are in between the dome and Pine Knoll. The general parking lots are free.
Part of the renovation project was to alter the concourse, which allows for much better flow, and an area where you can stand and watch the game. The food lines move pretty fast, which keeps the traffic moving. The bathrooms are very large and clean, and are in each corner of the stadium near the concession stands. Another addition during renovation was the addition of more handicap accessible elevators, and more handicap accessible seating areas in the middle of the field at concourse level.
General admission tickets are $15, not too bad considering parking is free and food prices are relatively cheap. Being such a unique place to take in a college football game, I think it is worth it to visit the Skydome for this price. The football product has not been very good in a long time though. The 2012 record was a little deceiving because they did not play any of the top teams in the conference, but hopefully things are on the upswing, more people will be at games, and the product will be better.
At every football game, there are other NAU student athletes going around selling 50/50 raffle tickets to raise money for various scholarship programs, but also gives one lucky fan a chance to go home with a good sized chunk of change. One kind of unique thing is that for the national anthem before the game, there are people that rappel off of the roof, and hang next to the flag throughout the Star Spangled Banner. I thought that was pretty cool. The whole environment of the dome is very unique, with signs reminding the opposing team that they are at 7,000 feet. Also, the fight song words are posted in the northwest corner for those who don't know all of the words. The Lumberjack Radio Network is 105.1, with long time play by play man Mitch Strohman on the call.
Having lived in Flagstaff for most of my life, attending almost every single one of my high school's home football games in the Skydome, and having my high school graduation in it, the place has been a major part of my life. I'm really impressed with how the renovations turned out, and how much nicer and more welcoming the entire building is. I'm glad that the Big Sky has expanded and more people from across the country will get an opportunity to see what Flagstaff has to offer as far as athletics is concerned. I just hope that the football and basketball programs can start performing better and bring some more attention to this great college stadium.
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