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  • Writer's pictureDave Cottenie

Stephen C. O’Connell Center – Florida Gators

Photos by Dave Cottenie, Stadium Journey

Stadium Info FANFARE Score: 3.86

Stephen C. O’Connell Center 250 Gale Lemerand Dr. Gainesville, FL 32611

Year Opened: 1980

Capacity: 10,133


Alligator Alley

Florida is a football school. Everyone knows this. The National Championships that the Gators won with the likes of Gator legends Steve Spurrier, Tim Tebow, and Danny Wuerffel are iconic and well-known. However, it wasn’t that long ago that the Gators brought National Championships in basketball back to Gainesville.

The likes of Joakim Noah, Al Horford, Corey Brewer, and Billy Donovan are synonymous with the unlikely back-to-back championships the swamp is proud of. Florida has been playing basketball since 1915. They are currently a member of the Southeastern Conference and not normally the powerhouse that Big Blue, the Kentucky Wildcats, is.

Since 1980, the home of the Gators has been the Stephen C. O’Connell Center. Named after the 6th president of the University of Florida, who served from 1967 to 1973, the O’Connell Center shares the same architectural design as the Yuengling Center on the campus of the University of South Florida in Tampa.

It was a way to stretch the limited state funding. In 2016 naming rights were sold to the medical firm Exactech for 10 years. The home for the Gators is currently known as the Exactech Arena at Stephen C. O’Connell Center. The Gators basketball teams share the facility with the volleyball and gymnastics programs. It offers a great experience for college basketball in a power conference in what is often a forgotten corner of the SEC.

Food & Beverage 4

Concession items at Exactech Arena are about what you would expect from a college basketball experience. There is decent variety at the numerous concession stands, but nothing that an ardent traveler would go out of their way to sample. Popcorn, burgers, hot dogs, fries, peanuts, nachos, and pretzels are all available. Not all items are available at all stands, so a quick tour of the arena to get a handle on concessions is not a bad idea.

In a humorous tidbit, all chicken products are referred to as Gator Bait. BBQ Pork nachos and jambalaya are the most unique options. Soft drink options include Pepsi products as well as bottled water and sweet tea. Hot coffee and tea are also available. However, it just wouldn’t be the University of Florida in a variety of Gatorade products that several were not also prominently on the menu. Alcohol is not available at Exactech Arena.

Atmosphere 4

The O’Connell Center is an attractive building from the exterior. Directly across the road from the legendary Ben Hill Griffin Stadium and surrounded by the requisite Florida palm trees, the O’Connell has a surprisingly modern look to the exterior with plenty of color present. Getting a picture with the bronze bull gator statue across the street is a must for visiting fans.

Entry into the Exactech Arena brings fans into a plush atrium filled with the requisite orange and plenty of video screens. The date of this review was also the same day as the Peach Bowl in which the Gators were participating so, understandably the screens were tuned to the football Gators. The decor in the concourses is very nice and small details are considered.

Pictures highlighting key moments at the Exactech Arena and some historical murals as well. The Alligator Alley kids zone has plenty of activities for the kids and is a great gathering point before the action starts.

Inside the seating bowl, fans are welcomed by three levels of seating separated by a pair of walkways. The court runs from east to west and the best spot for a picture with the center logo facing the correct way is from the north side. Blue seats with orange highlights keep the school colors continuous through the arena. The east end of the arena features basketball banners.

Final Four appearances are memorialized in blue and the National Championship banners for 2006 and 2007 stand out in orange. Above the court hangs a four-sided video board which is not overwhelming and adds to the atmosphere. Surprisingly, however, there are very few remnants of those championship teams. It could be just a matter of time until some of those championship players have their numbers retired and hung in the rafters for all the Gator-faithful to see.

The game day experience is solid at the Exactech Arena. The Gator band can be found in the southeast corner of the arena, right beside the “Rowdy Reptiles” student section. The cheerleaders and Pom team keep that college feeling strong and the Gator mascot, Albert, can be found around the arena participating in the festivities and interacting with fans. Considering the game that was reviewed was during the winter break, the student section was particularly impressive and played a significant part in the game.

Neighborhood 5

Exactech Arena is located at the north end of the campus of the University of Florida. As with many large universities, there are several local options for pre and post-game fare close to campus. Heading north to University Ave is probably the best place to be. Several recognizable chain restaurants can be found in the immediate vicinity, however, travelers who are looking for a more local option should check out The Swamp, Leonardo’s Felipe’s Mexican, The Social at Midtown, and Mother’s Pub and Grill.

For travelers looking for other sporting options in the area, Florida Gators athletics are about all that will be found. Florida offers a full complement of athletic teams and courses, the crown jewel is the legendary Florida Gators football team who calls nearby Florida Field at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium home. Other entertainment options could include the Florida Museum of Natural History.

For fans that are looking to stay near the university, there are several options. The Hilton and Holiday Inn are both solid options, very close to the O’Connell Center.

Fans 4

Keeping in mind that Florida is a football-first school, the basketball program does enjoy strong support. In years past, Florida has ranked in the top 50 in NCAA basketball attendance, recently ranking as high as 35th. Florida routinely averages between 9,500 and 10,500 fans per game.

The game that was reviewed saw over 9,800 fans in attendance at a time when the school was quiet for winter break and the football team was playing in the Peach Bowl. The student section, known as the Rowdy Reptiles, brings energy and excitement to the game and sits courtside, beside the band.

Access 3

The Stephen C. O’Connell Center is located at the north end of the campus of the University of Florida in Gainesville. The campus is a fair hike east of I-75 and the arena is just south of University Ave. Patrons coming from out of town will have to do some meandering through Gainesville to get to campus. Once on campus, parking can be a bit of a challenge to maneuver.

The date of the review saw the campus quiet for winter break so it was unclear as to how much parking enforcement was happening. However, there were plenty of cars pulled up over curbs and near sidewalks. When walking to the arena, mind the signs around greenspaces that warn you not to travel them after dark. Presumably, the wildlife comes out after dark.

For fans looking for public transit options, there are plenty. Buses travel all over campus. Fans are encouraged to check out the Gainesville Mobility website for options including maps, fares, and schedules. Many college basketball facilities feature major league security procedures. Fans are encouraged to consult the Gators website for the most up-to-date security information before heading to the game.

Inside, the O’Connell Center can be a bit of a maze and there are a number of different levels and ways to get lost. There are plenty of stairs and this would be a detractor for fans who struggle to ascend and descend staircases. Washroom facilities are found on the main concourse level and many fans will require descending those staircases often if too much Gatorade is on the agenda!

Return on Investment 4

The opportunity to see some top-ranked college basketball in Florida for a decent price is a possibility. Tickets can be had for under $20 for a decent opponent. Keep in mind that the top-selling opponents are Kentucky, Tennessee, and other Florida teams.

Parking can be found for a decent price and concession prices are not out of whack. Combine that with a solid product on the court and a surprisingly strong basketball experience and fans can enjoy a great experience without dropping a mortgage payment.

Extras 3

An extra mark for the opportunity to get a photo with the bronze bull alligator outside of Ben Hill Griffin Stadium, on the opposite side of Gale Lemerand Dr. An extra mark for the naming of the building after a former Florida president. An extra mark for the opportunity to poke around Ben Hill Griffin Stadium. The main team store is inside and it is open for fans to walk right in and check out The Swamp.

Final Thoughts

A trip to Exactech Arena at Stephen C. O’Connell Center is not a mecca experience however, fans will be pleasantly surprised at just how good the experience is. Gators basketball offers a great return on investment and a whole lot of fun that the whole family can enjoy.


Follow all of Dave’s sporting adventures on Twitter @profan9 and Instagram.

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