Only in Minnesota would you tell your friends that you are going to “The Barn” to watch a basketball game and have them respond with something like, “Aww…I wish I could be there tonight.” Actually, let me amend that, it’s probably the only place in the world where people would be jealous of someone going to an 80-year-old building called The Barn, but that’s Minnesota for you—don’cha know?
Yes, it is true: named after Dr. Henry L. Williams, a former football coach, Williams Arena is home to the University of Minnesota men’s and women’s basketball programs, and was opened in 1928. It was built around the same time as the Hinkle Fieldhouse in Indianapolis and just after the Palestra in Philadelphia. Sadly, it’s still more than a decade younger than longtime Star Tribune columnist Sid Hartman.
All old man jokes aside, The Barn may be a bit rustic, but it still has up-to-date amenities. The University of Minnesota hasn’t used its age as excuse to go cheap: There are LCD televisions in the concourse, a new jumbotron and a spectacular club level. In short, the U of M has done a good job of mixing the old and new with their basketball facility.
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".
Compared to other venues in college and professional sports, food at Williams Arena is pretty reasonably priced. No, that doesn't mean that you have to go wade acres of beet plants in order to have a wholesome meal-Dwight Schrute and Cousin Mose are nowhere to be found here.
The concourses may be a little cramped, especially when there is a long bathroom line and a horde of people waiting for a hot dog and pretzel at the Snack Shack there is an informal "flow of traffic". While you may feel like a shark swimming through a school of fish in order to get your prized eatables, nobody should enter a place called The Barn thinking that they won't have to work for their meal a little bit.
The aforementioned Snack Shack offers your typical stadium delicacies: hot dog, burger, bratwurst and sides of nachos, pretzels and other candy. Nothing is more expensive than $5 and smaller items can be purchased for something in the $3 to $4 range.
Subway, Famous Dave's and Dino's Gyros are all offered in various locations around Williams Arena as well. Name brand food costs somewhere from $5 to $7, so they are a little bit more expensive, but you definitely get what you pay for. There is also a Kemps Ice Cream stand, which is unique to many arenas.
No alcohol is served at Williams Arena, except at the club level, but Coke products are offered at most stands or by individual vendors throughout the arena.
I personally enjoy Myslack's. For $6.50 you can get a hardy beef sandwich that will leave you begging for more.
Despite having a capacity of over 14,000, with room for two thousand more in the standing room only section, Williams Arena offers an intimate basketball experience. If the ceiling were not designed in an upward arch, like an airplane hangar, you would have thought the stadium was built like any other normal basketball venue and then stepped on by Big Foot. Unlike other cavernous arenas, at Williams you feel like you are sitting right on top of the people below you.
Well, it's because you are.
Although there is plenty of seating in the lower deck that is uncovered, there are a couple of seats with obstructed views because they are literally sitting underneath four or five rows of people. The game I was at was played against Nebraska, an inferior Big Ten opponent, so many of those seats were unoccupied, but at bigger games people will be pressed against the back wall in order to be part of the action.
There are a couple of displays on the jumbotron that get the crowd going. One has a star player ask "The Barnyard" to get loud, another is the typical kiss cam and I personally like the "Dance Cam" that focuses on one or two fans doing their best Michael Jackson impersonation.
The band plays frequently during breaks, belting out the U of M fight song and encouraging the crowd to spell out M-I-N-N-E-S-O-T-A or playing their best rendition of "Shout!" which would make John Belushi and his toga-wearing friends get low.
During basketball games Goldie the Gopher has a golf bag with a hockey stick, broom and a stick horse in lieu of woods, irons and putters that he bats one of the cheerleaders' pom-poms around with during longer intermissions. At halftime, he drops the golf bag and hits the hardwood in a friendly pickup game against other mascots from around the Twin Cities.
Overall, Williams Arena has a great college feel to it, even when the actual basketball game isn't going on.
Unlike other Big Ten opponents like Michigan, Wisconsin and Ohio State, which are located in their own city, the U of M sits right in the middle of the Twin Cities. Williams Arena sits on the East Bank, right off of Exit 18 on 35W. It is connected to the Sports Pavilion, an erstwhile hockey facility that has been converted to a volleyball court with a capacity of 5,000 and is walking distance from TCF Bank Stadium (football), Mariucci Arena (hockey) and the Baseline Tennis Center.
Surrounded by student housing, chain restaurants and smaller shopping centers, Dinkytown is Minneapolis' answer to Ann Arbor, Madison and Columbus. It may not be its own city, but the kids run this part of town.
This is wonderful if you are a student or a person in their mid-20s, but older fans will have to look outside the surrounding neighborhood for entertainment and food options. After all, as people move farther and farther away from their college days, they probably aren't so keen on having Buffalo Wild Wings or McDonald's for dinner before the game and sitting down with a tall PBR at a student bar after the game.
Fortunately, there are plenty of great bars and restaurants all over the Twin Cities for out-of-town visitors. It just means that you might have a short drive after sitting down to dinner in order to get to the arena.
My favorite chant at Gophers games happens after an opposing player fouls out. As the player walks toward the bench, the fans chant left, right, left, right...as he walks off the floor. Occasionally, a player will stand with his hands on his hips, most likely because he is upset with the officiating. At that time, the crowd yells: standing...standing. Finally, when the player takes a seat, everyone yells: Sit down!!!
Other than that, there is not a lot of unique chants at the game.
The crowd is rowdy at the beginning of the game and engaged throughout. They are loud when they have to be, but usually the place remains quiet throughout the contest.
One thing to note is that almost everyone is either wearing maroon or gold. At the contest I was at, students were given maroon shirts from the Big Ten Network, but even the season-ticket holders and general audience were wearing the team colors. There were not many jerseys worn, most people came in sweatshirts since the weather was around 20 degrees, but there were a couple sweet uniforms. One in particular I liked was a McHale throwback.
The crowd does not have the same impact here as it would at the Phog or at Cameron Indoor, but they hold their own in comparison to other fanbases around college basketball.
Access to Williams Arena, like any other U of M venue, is pretty straightforward. Anyone in the Twin Cities will be able to find it because it is located off of Exit 18 on 35W, a main commuter route for anyone in the northern or southern suburbs.
For out of towners, or people in the east or west, I-94 to 35W is usually the best bet. For people that come from south of the Twin Cities, I-35, which splits into 35E (St. Paul) and 35W (Minneapolis) and runs as far south as San Antonio, TX is the yellow brick road that leads to Gopherville.
There is plenty of parking located nearby and for family visiting students, the arenas are walking distance from many off-campus apartments.
Tickets can be purchased for $35 directly from the team and around $40 in the secondary market. It's a pretty reasonable price for the atmosphere you get.
Secondary prices are not too bad either. Food is pretty reasonable in comparison with other venues and parking is usually around $10.
The only real problem is you can get a seat with an obstructed view, but those are $10 cheaper and the Gopher athletics site makes it very clear which seats are obstructed and which are not.
Williams Arena is unique in that the floor is raised above ground level. This means that players do not sit on the playing surface, but actually a foot or two below it. There is a chair for each head coach that sits on the actual playing surface. It is almost as though they are, ahem, gophers in that carnival game where the little varmints poke their heads through various holes and you try to smack them over the head with a mallet.
Better yet, when Goldie is cruising around the perimeter of the playing surface, it gives the viewer a perception that he's burrowing around. It must be relatively frightening when the team plays Illinois, as one of their avid supporters, Bill Murray, has a reputation of threatening gophers that burrow near the playing surface of a sporting event.
A new jumbotron was added last summer that has Williams Arena printed in bright gold lettering and four large television screens that provide live, in-game action and statistics.
There also is a culture of winning in the building. Banners from the Big Ten Championships and NCAA Appearances hang from the rafters on the east and west side of the building. To the north, there are banners for the best female players ever to wear a Gopher uniform, most notably current Minnesota Lynx point guard Lindsay Whalen. On the south side are banners for the men, with Kevin McHale being the most prominent name of the bunch.
Around the concourses there are museum-type displays of old equipment and miscellaneous items as well as wallpaper and plaques for notable former teams, coaches and players.
Finally, this is an old venue, so getting around the arena isn't as straightforward as it is at other venues. In fact, there have to be like 50 staircases in The Barn, giving it an Ascending and Descending feel, as though MC Escher designed Williams Arena. Fortunately, the staff at the game is incredibly helpful and, no, you won't be walking towards the ground level and suddenly end up in one of the skyboxes.
Williams Arena may be one of the oldest venues in college sports, but it is by no means a dump. It is very well kept, the fans are placed close to the action and it has up-to-date amenities like flat-screen televisions and a large jumbotron (that somehow hasn't caused the roof to cave in).
With the disappearance of old-time venues like the Boston Garden and Chicago Stadium, it's fun to see a basketball game in an older building-even if there may be some seats with obstructed views and cramped concourses.
After all, one of the greatest aspects of a team is its history and the Gophers certainly have plenty of that.
I love universities that are part of a major city. It just adds an element of excitement. More traditional "college towns" are fun as well because of the community's devotion to a particular school, but one of the things that makes the University of Minnesota special is its placement in Minneapolis.
When I visited Williams Arena (commonly known as "The Barn"), I had a great experience at the game as well as getting to know the area. Built in 1928, and named for former football coach, Dr. Henry Williams, this has that historic feel without any of the discomfort that can come from a really old arena that hasn't had the proper facelifts over the years.
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