Contrary to what you might think, the Minnesota Wild aren’t the only resident in St. Paul, Minnesota’s Xcel Energy Center, nor are they the most successful – at least, if you want to gauge success by playoff appearances.
No, the more successful of the teams that occupy the Xcel Energy Center is the National Lacrosse League’s Minnesota Swarm, who entered the NLL during the NHL lockout, in the 2004-05 season and have made the postseason in six of their eight seasons, including the 2012 campaign.
So, they’re successful. We get that. But how does their stadium experience match up with one that is largely considered as one of the best in the NHL, with the Minnesota Wild? Let’s find out.
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".
If you've been to a Wild game, then you've experienced what the Xcel Energy Center has to offer in terms of food and drink and, with the Swarm, it's the same - to an extent.
The Swarm offers all of the staple foods that you would expect from a stadium. Hot dogs, pizza, burgers, nachos - all of these are available. It's nothing fancy, but it's also what you would expect in terms of stadium food. They also have specialty food as well, one of which is called "The Loon," which is a wild rice and cheddar stuffed bratwurst. Again, it's nothing fancy, but it's also a nice local twist on the basic stadium hot dog that may be almost anyone's first choice when heading out to a game.
On the beverage side, you can get sodas, both from the tap and from the bottle, you can get beer, again bottled or from the tap, as well as cocktails or wine if you're so inclined.
The fare at the Xcel for the Swarm isn't lacking in quality, but it is lacking a bit in price, and that's where it suffers. The prices aren't any different from the standard Minnesota Wild prices - hot dogs will run you between $6-$6.25, a personal-sized pizza will cost you $7.50, or you can get a burger for $7($9.50 if you want fries), while draft beers range from $7.25-$9 and bottled from $7-$7.25. This is nothing that is shocking to anyone who is well-versed in the stadium experience, but when you're paying just $20 for a ticket, it starts to look a bit overpriced for the experience.
One thing the Swarm do a fantastic job of is creating an atmosphere where it is unbelievably fun to watch a game. From the constant music playing during the game (I mean, constant, even during play), to the goal music (is there any goal song that is more annoyingly happy than Chelsea Dagger?), to the announcer that is wonderfully derisive towards the opponent, the Swarm do their best to pump up the crowd, and it works quite well to create a raucous atmosphere in a building that is typically about half capacity.
In addition to the music, the atmosphere is furthered by the team's dance squad, which performs intermittently during breaks in the action, as well as a local hip-hop group that sings the team's entrance music. Prompts by the announcer, such as de-fense and other chants, provide any spark that the crowd may need - though they rarely need an excuse to be loud.
You're not going to find a much better neighborhood than the one that the Xcel Energy Center occupies in downtown St. Paul. While you need to be careful, as you do with many neighborhoods in big cities, it has a small-town feel to it that makes it very comfortable to walk around in, even at night.
The surrounding area has multiple restaurants of varying degrees, from Tom Reid's, a pub that serves your staple bar food fare, to Cossetta's, an Italian eatery with an attached deli, you can find good food for a moderate price within walking distance of the arena. If you want some more pricey food, there are places like Pazzaluna, another Italian restaurant, Sakura Sushi, Fhima's, or Kincaid's, all within walking distance and all terrific places to go drop some cash on some good food.
Whatever your poison, however, it's easy to find something you'll like around the Xcel, both for what you're craving and what your wallet is necessitating.
Let's be clear here. The fans of the Swarm are great. It would just be nice if there were more of them in the arena. The lower bowl is typically about half or three-quarters of the way full, but that's not discounting how great the fans that do show up are. They're loud, they're knowledgeable about the game and ready to have fun (the highlight of the particular game I was at was a 60-something year old man dancing to Dynamite), which always creates a great atmosphere for a fun game.
Just as with Wild games, getting to the Xcel couldn't be easier. While the Swarm lack the drunk buses that typically run to and from the Xcel on nights the Wild are playing, it's still unbelievably easy to get to the arena, between the regular buses and taxis, as well as the dearth of parking around the arena. Ramps are easily accessible, and you can typically find a reasonably priced one within walking distance. In addition, if you're willing to walk a bit, you can typically find parking on the street, as meters in St. Paul are only enforced between the hours of 8:00 a.m. and 4:30 p.m. on Monday through Saturday and are not enforced on Sundays.
If you're heading out to a Swarm game, you're not breaking the bank doing so. With only the lower bowl open, the worst you're going to drop is $20 on a lower level ticket. If you want to go crazy, you can drop $82 to be on the glass, but the rest of the tickets are much more reasonably priced. On top of all of that, the experience is just plain fun and, for $20, you're not really spending much more than you would spend to head out and see a movie.
The extras for the Swarm are, really, why you go to a Swarm game. From the dance team to all of the extras they have around the arena like high school dance teams and bands playing, the atmosphere is much more relaxed than that of a Wild game or other pro sports game, and that's a good thing. While the lacrosse is (usually) good, you go to see a Swarm game at the Xcel Energy Center to have a good time, and these things just contribute to that.
The NLL isn't one of the Big Four leagues, but when it comes down to it, that might be a good thing. Instead of the serious atmosphere of an NHL or NFL game, you get an atmosphere that is much more relaxed and much more about the enjoyment of the experience as a whole as opposed to wanting your team to win. The fans there are passionate, but not to the extent that their day is ruined by a loss, and you're getting an inexpensive outing in a great neighborhood and a great venue, and you can't ask for much more than that.
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