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Official Review by Greg Archuleta, Stadium Journey Regional Correspondent
The centerpiece athletic venue in the state of New Mexico turned 50 this season. University Arena, aka WisePies Arena, aka “The Pit” is still the pride and joy of the University of New Mexico athletic department and the Lobos basketball team.
The Pit, built in a 37-foot hole on Albuquerque’s southeast mesa, has served home for the some of the most vocal fans in the nation. A $60 million renovation that added luxury boxes and two video boards at the north and south ends of the arena, among other upgrades, reduced the Pit’s capacity from 18,018 to 15,411.
A UNM streak of three years away from an NCAA tournament appearance has had an impact as 2016-17 targets to be the first year since the building’s opening on Dec. 1, 1966 that the Lobos will be outside the top 25 in the nation in attendance. Still, a close game against a rival or Top-25 foes raises the decibel levels to traditional Pit standards
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There's nothing fancy about the fare at the Pit. That's not a knock on the concessions; it's just that for so long, they were just there for fans to get something quick and get back to their seats. One sort of oddity is that although the arena was renamed in 2014 for a local pizza chain of restaurants (WisePies), fans cannot yet purchase the pizza, which "creates personal gourmet pizzas & fresh salads made just the way you like it in under 5 minutes from start to finish." The restaurant and venue are in discussions of trying to bring it aboard.
Being in the heart of the southwest, most of the fare is available with red and green chile, on hamburgers, hot dogs, nachos, sandwiches and, of course, Mexican food. There are multiple stands in the concourse area with about five different types of food. Credit cards are accepted and welcomed.
The nachos still are the most popular item, given the fast-paced nature of basketball. UNM's nachos come with beef or chicken ($11) or barbecue style ($9). You can also get just chips and cheese for $6.50. For those looking more for a meal, there are green chile cheeseburgers with fries ($11), Navajo tacos (meat, beans, cheese and chile on a large round piece of Indian fry bread) for $11, chicken ($10), pork ($10), deli roast beef ($11), pepperoni pizza ($8.50) jumbo hot dogs ($6,50) Frito Pie ($6.50) and green chile Kyzer Farm brats ($10) available. Salads ($8-$8.50) also are available.
The stands sell Pepsi/Dr Pepper fountain products ($6 and $4). Bottled water is $4 or $6.50. Alcoholic beverages include domestic beers (such as Coors, Budweiser, Tecate or Dos Equis for $8) and a premium beer for $9 (including Blue Moon and Lone Star). Overall, the concessions are a bit pricey for the typical Albuquerque family income, but about par for arenas in the Mountain West.
If you're hungry, try the BBQ nachos with green chile. It adds two types of spice to your traditional nachos and lets you munch while still being able to stand up and holler over a home-team alley-oop without having to pause to set down your food.
Game night for the Lobo basketball teams-men or women-always has an electricity and excitement to it, especially as you approach the lights reflecting off the part of the exterior covered in glass windows. The concourse is a jungle of people, where the best time to wander (unfortunately) is during the middle of the game. You could get lost easily, if it weren't for the giant Lobo head at center court, which faces east.
Once you get to your seat, beware of the indoor, remote-controlled blimp that hovers over the court and seats. Like most big-time college programs, the UNM athletic department's in-house video production team, "LoboTV" does a great job with a short video of the players before team introductions. And because of the two video boards high above both ends of the court, there's not a bad seat in the house (but obviously the best seats are the ones on the east and west sides that allow you to see all the game action). If you have a choice, choose seats either behind the Lobo bench (on the southeast side section) or the southwest side section where UNM will be on offense in the second half.
The Pit also has a tradition of the home crowd standing to start each half until the home team scores. A little more than 10 years ago, UNM tried to alter the tradition so that the crowd stood until the opposing team scored. That has still confused a few souls, who stand until both teams score.
Despite the more intimate crowds of recent seasons, when the Lobos are playing well, few venues are louder or more intense.
WisePies Arena is part of an athletic venue triplex that includes University Stadium (housing the Lobos football team) across the street and Colorado Rockies Triple-A baseball stadium Isotopes Park catty-corner to the northeast. As such, you have to travel a bit to get to the nearest restaurants or watering holes. The Pit is aglow at night, showing off the outside beauty of the arena, and the area is well lit and has lots of security and traffic that will make patrons feel safe.
Central Avenue just north of the ballpark has several places to eat in the Brick Light District, as does Yale Boulevard to the east and Girard Boulevard to the south. The majority of the dining choices are chain restaurants, sprinkled with a few good local hangouts.
Two established barbecue restaurants are close by: The Quarters, and The Cube. Frontier Restaurant, a long-standing UNM favorite establishment that features traditional Mexican food and burgers, also is less than two miles away. There's also good pizza at Saggio's and Dion's, a local pizza chain.
Two brewpubs that attract a lot of nightlife near WisePies Arena are Marble Brewery and Kelly's Brew Pub. Albuquerque is becoming a microbrew hub, and there are also several other notable pubs in the Nob Hill area on Central, east of The Pit.
For those out-of-towners coming to Albuquerque to watch a Lobos basketball game, be sure to take a ride on the Sandia Peak Tramway, which takes you 2.7 miles to the top of the Sandia Mountains. If you come around the holidays, you also can visit the River of Lights at the ABQ BioPark Botanic Garden.
WisePies Arena also is located just minutes from the Albuquerque International Sunport and has several hotel options just south of the park, including the well-respected Sheraton Albuquerque Airport Hotel.
Albuquerque is a basketball town with one of the most rabid college basketball fan bases in the country in support of the Lobos. Both the men's and women's teams are among the nation's leaders in attendance.
As the fan base moves into the next generation, it isn't quite as rabid as it was in the 20th century, when losing your voice was common because of all the cheering for the Lobos, the bemoaning of the officiating and the yelling at your friend or fellow family member with you at the game because The Pit was so loud, that was the only way you could hear each other.
Nowadays, UNM gets 75 to 80 percent capacity, which is still a pretty packed house. And because the community grew up on Lobo basketball, it is pretty savvy about knowing what to cheer, what to boo and when the team needs to be picked up. The football team last season matched its highest win total since 1982, yet had its lowest attendance total since 1992. That is not a problem at The Pit. If you win, they will come.
Because The Pit is located in the heart of the city's major athletic venues and has a reputation for drawing crowds of 15,000, getting in and out of the area is relatively easy, and police are on-hand to direct traffic.
Albuquerque isn't yet a city with a bustling mass transit system, although that is scheduled to change in the fall of 2017 with a rapid transit project completion. That could get fans within about a mile of the arena. Uber is a popular option for those who plan on consuming alcoholic beverages at the game or at establishments near the venue.
Parking costs $10 per car around the arena. The school asks the fans to make donations to the Lobo Club, which starts at $250 per year and gives fans parking to men's and women's basketball and football games.
Entrance to The Pit is available on the east and west sides. Security will check bags upon arrival.
Getting inside the arena is relatively painless, but traffic flow picks up quickly around the concourse about a half-hour before the game. The team does a good job with handicap access, whether it's parking at the facility or seating at the arena. Those with access to handicap parking are directed to their areas. ADA seating is available on both the east and west sides as they extend to the north. The staff is attentive to those who request assistance at the ballpark.
The great thing about going to a Lobo basketball game always has been that the game itself has represented the steak and the sizzle. The Lobos always have been competitive, if not dominant, in their conference, and The Pit was the place to be during a big game.
As a result, not an abundance of frills accompany a trek to The Pit for a Lobo basketball game. The halftime entertainment usually consists of youth entertainment, and the media timeouts feature cheerleading routine with the occasional contest.
Though game ticket prices and concession prices are consistent with national trends, New Mexico still represents one of the poorer states. Usually, fans know how they can score a free ticket or two, but concessions prices can mount quickly after a couple of games.
As host of the No. 1 game in town, the Pit hasn't relied on discount nights or a lot of promotional campaigns.
The parking charge (if you don't take advantage of the free car-pooling discount) does rub some longtime Lobos fans the wrong way.
And yet, the entertainment value of a big game against a big-name opponent always seems to bring out the best in The Pit.
There aren't a lot of pregame activities or extras surrounding a visit to The Pit. On Saturday afternoons, fans traveling to the game can get a good view of the Sandia Mountains.
The true value of attending a Lobos game traditionally has been the benefits associated with one's presence at a big game.
The Pit was also host to the 1983 Final Four, the championship that saw North Carolina State's Lorenzo Charles catch and put in an air ball at the buzzer, sending coach Jim Valvano scurrying around the court in disbelief and joy.
But the excitement of going to a Lobo basketball game still has an excitement to it that no other recurring event in the state can match.
New Mexico basketball is relevant on a national level because of The Pit. Though the school has never advanced to a Sweet 16 in the NCAA Tournament, the basketball team plays to capacity or near capacity crowds at the venue on a regular basis. The success of the program needs to catch up with the popularity of The Pit.
From an exposure and financial standpoint, building The Pit may have been the university's greatest accomplishment.
Member Review by GArchuleta on Feb 18, 2012
The moniker, "University Arena" does little to get the blood pumping through the average college basketball fan. Call the venue by its more common name, "The Pit," and you get a totally different reaction.
Named by Sports Illustrated as one of the Top 20 venues in all of sports – much less basketball – of the 20th century, The Pit is home to the University of New Mexico men’s and women’s basketball teams. In 2009, it underwent a $60 million renovation that took a year to complete. Some local fans worried that the corporatization of the venue would damage its reputation as one of the most hostile environments for visiting team in all of college basketball. The capacity, once 18,018, was reduced to 15,411 to make way for more suites.
UNM adopted the slogan "A Mile High and Louder Than …" for the 45-year-old venue, which – is a little forced because its reputation precedes the marketing – still rings true.
Member Review by rudyc on Feb 21, 2012
If you are a college basketball fan and have never been to a game in The PIT, then you are really missing out. Intense and LOUD, the fans know the game. It can literally blow your mind how LOUD it can get. Measured at 118db (the pain theshold is 120), it will remind you of those old Led Zeppelin concerts!
Member Review by gnefshn89 on May 25, 2012
I've had the opportunity to visit a handful of arenas around the country- NBA and college, and I have to say, this is a one-of-a-kind experience. Crazy fans, unique design for a stadium, too. Food is a little over-priced and alcohol is only allowed in the club section.
801 Yale Boulevard SE
Albuquerque, NM 87106
1600 Gibson Blvd SE
Albuquerque, NM 87106