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Official Review by Lloyd Rothwell, Stadium Journey Regional Correspondent
The WIN Entertainment Centre (WEC) is located in the heart of Wollongong. It was opened in 1998 and has a capacity of approximately 6,000 for basketball. The Centre hosts numerous events and concerts in addition to basketball and sits in a picturesque location directly across from Wollongong’s City Beach. With WIN Stadium next door, the area is a focus for sport and entertainment. Recently there has been a push to revamp the WEC into a major convention centre.
Wollongong, known colloquially as “The Gong”, is a coastal city just south of Sydney and the major centre of the Illawarra region. The Illawarra is a narrow strip of land with the coast on one side and an escarpment on the other, creating an attractive geographical setting. The area has a strong working class background in coal mining, steel, manufacturing, and stevedoring. However Wollongong is slowing moving towards a more service based economy, led by the University of Wollongong and a growing culture of innovation, particularly in IT.
The Hawks entered Australia’s National Basketball League (NBL) in 1979 and are the last remaining foundation club. Previously known as the Illawarra Hawks, the club has experienced moderate success over the years with a championship in 2001. The club is owned by the local community and has experienced several tough financial periods throughout its history. The Hawks are currently the only local team in a top-level national professional sporting league and as such traditionally receive strong local support.
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 several food stands available around the WEC. Hot food items include nachos ($8.80), pulled beef roll ($8.70), chicken wings ($8.30), and hot chips. Sandwiches ($6.80) along with chips and chocolates are also available. Popcorn and ice cream stands are also located inside the arena.
Drinks can be purchased from the bar with Pure Blonde ($7.30), Carlton ($6.80), Victoria Bitter ($6.50), wine by the glass ($4.10), Strongbow ($8.20), Smirnoff ($11.40), Jim Beam ($11.40) and Canadian Club ($11.40) among the options available. Soft drinks (Coke products), water, and coffee are also on offer.
Be aware that while not all food stands are in operation, those that are sufficiently service the level of crowds that the Hawks currently attract. The food and beverage options are adequate, but if you are after something more substantial I suggest visiting one of the many local restaurants before or after the game.
The Hawks have a proud history in the Illawarra. They set the scene well with activities set up around the entrance to the arena. It is a pleasant place to be with a buzz around the area and the beach across the road. Hawks games are generally family friendly with many children in attendance.
The Hawks have retired five numbers and these are displayed, along with their Championship banner. There are video boards at either end of the arena that display scores and statistics.
Throughout the game the crowd is kept engaged in the contest by enthusiastic announcers, the Hawks Cheer Girls and Junior Cheer Squad, and contests involving fans. The Hawks have two mascots; Moe Hawk and Tomma Hawk.
I recommend getting to the game early to watch the warm up and walk around the arena before taking your seat. Both teams are introduced prior to tip off and enter with a "bang". The Hawks also have a tradition whereby the crowd is encouraged to stand and clap until the away team scores a basket.
All seats in the house are offering clear views with good opportunity to move around and take advantage of different viewpoints. The crowd does get quite rowdy at times, and are especially parochial. The WEC is an enjoyable and vibrant place to see a basketball game, especially when the Hawks are winning and they are drawing big crowds. However, during the 2013 season the Hawks are drawing just over 2,000 per game, which hurts the overall atmosphere somewhat.
Despite its working class origins, the CBD of Wollongong is undergoing a transformation with a growing trend towards small boutique bars, cafes and outdoor entertaining. Nearby Crown Street Mall is being renovated to make the major shopping centre in Wollongong a more vibrant and modern space.
Options for dining and entertainment are plentiful. Corrimal St is home to many restaurants, cafes and pubs. Some of the newer hip destinations include Dagwood, and His Boy Elroy. The North Wollongong Hotel (the "North Gong"), a short drive away, is always a popular choice of pub for locals.
The WEC complex itself also includes the Illawarra Brewery; a modern space with dining and bars offering a choice of nine handcrafted beers brewed on site. In addition, two new restaurants have opened beneath the new grandstand in the adjacent WIN Stadium; Chargoal (Mediterranean) and Char Char Bar & Grill (Modern Australian and South African). A couple of my personal local favourites include Gigi's Restaurant and Bar (Italian), Ghedias (Indian), and Cold Rock Ice Creamery (desserts).
For those travelling from out of town, Wollongong is a great destination. Two major hotels are located close by; the Chifley, and the Novotel at North Beach. The "Blue Mile", which stretches from Flagstaff Hill to North Beach, highlights the stunning coastline. The area has numerous surf beaches as well as the sheltered Belmore Basin for those looking to enjoy the water. While the two major hotels in the area are the Chifley and the Novotel Northbeach, there are also numerous motels, rental apartments, and caravan parks offering accommodation.
While Hawks fans are devoted and support their team well, there has been a decline in attendance in recent times. Although long-serving stalwarts Glen Saville and Mat Campbell have recently retired, fans still connect well with favourite players such as Larry Davidson and Tyson Demos.
Wollongong is proud of the Hawks and the crowd is generally quite vocal in support of their town and team. This is especially the case when they play arch rival, the Sydney Kings. Additionally, many attendees sport Hawks merchandise. The crowd is generally well natured, and are loud. The fans know the players and follow the game intently. The Hawks would be hoping to improve their on-court performance to attract more of the locals back to their games.
The WEC is relatively easy to access given its central Wollongong location. Parking is adequate. Free parking in the CBD area fills very quickly although I'd suggest trying the Burelli St car park as you might get lucky. There are several paid parking options close by. The Stewart St car park charges $5 for events and is only a short walk away. Driving or walking is probably your best option although Wollongong Train Station is about a 15 minute walk away.
The Illawarra is accessed via several major roads. If you are heading south from the M1 (F6) freeway, then it connects the region with Sydney. From Western Sydney the M7 links with the Hume Hwy (M31) and Appin Rd or Picton Rd. While in most cases the drive is quite easy, an accident or holiday traffic can cause massive delays. If you are driving from Sydney, allow some extra time just in case, and choose your game carefully.
Once inside the venue it's quite easy to move around both the exterior and interior of the arena. Restrooms are easy to locate, relatively large, and clean.
Tickets for adults range from $25 to $95, with discount opportunities for children, students, pensioners, and families. Pricing is reasonable and is comparable with other NBL venues. It's great to be at floor level, but even if price is an issue, then the cheaper seats still provide a good view and allow you to experience the vibe of a Hawks game.
The Hawks are very active in the local community and work hard to engage and energise the area, for which they deserve recognition. There is a well-stocked team store within the Centre with numerous items available for purchase. An extra point is also awarded for the stunning views around the area - particularly if you are travelling from outside the region in order to attend a game. It's worth taking the time to stop at one of the lookouts above the escarpment which affords magnificent views of the Pacific coastline - pull over at Bulli Tops before you ascend down the Pass or Mt Ousley.
A Hawks game at WIN Entertainment Centre is always fun. They're a community club and their game day experience reflects that passion that locals have for their club.
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