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  • Writer's pictureMatt Colville

Pensacola Bay Center – Sun Belt Basketball Tournament

Photos by Matt Colville, Stadium Journey

Stadium Info FANFARE Score: 3.43

Pensacola Bay Center 201 E Gregory St Pensacola, FL 32502

Year Opened: 1985 Capacity: 8,150


March Madness Runs Through the Emerald Coast

2023 marks the third straight year that the Road to the Final Four has run through the Florida panhandle, with the Sun Belt men's and women's basketball tournaments. In 2020 the City and Conference signed a four-year contract for the tournament to be held at Pensacola Bay Center in downtown Pensacola. The event's operations are run by Pensacola Sports, a non-profit sporting event services group. The 8,150-seat building also servs as the home of the Pensacola Ice Flyers of the SPHL.

The Sun Belt Conference is one of the premiere mid-major conferences in college basketball. Since being founded in 1976 the basketball-rich conference has sent 54 teams to the NCAA tournament, accounting for 18 wins. The winner of the Sun Belt tournament automatically advances into the NCAA Tournament every year, and there have also been some years when the conference sent multiple teams dancing to the Tournament, most recently in 2013. Perhaps the best year for the Sun Belt was its inaugural year, when the Charlotte 49ers made it to the Final Four and finished the season ranked third in the country.

Western Kentucky has won the most men's and women's Sun Belt tournaments with nine wins, while South Alabama and Louisiana are the current conference teams with the most tournament wins, at five for the men's, while Old Dominion has won five for the women’s.

The 2023 Sun Belt tournaments marks the 47th installment of the tourney, which has been played at 15 different sites over the years in the Southeast region – Biloxi, Birmingham, Hot Springs, Mobile, Charlotte, and Little Rock are just some of the cities which have hosted over the years, with New Orleans hosting the most tournaments at seven. Prior to the 2022-23 season the Sun Belt welcomed four new teams for basketball (Southern Miss, Marshall, James Madison and Old Dominion); because of these additions there was a slight change for the 2023 tournament, with the top 4 teams getting a double round bye in the single-elimination format, with all 14 teams invited.

Food and Beverage 3

The Bay Center features four permanent concession stands, with two on each side of the concourse. On the west side concourse is Coop's Chicken Stand, which sells chicken tender baskets and sandwiches with prices from $7-$10. There is also a stand called Savor which just sells the basics, where prices range between $4 and $7; popcorn, hamburgers, nachos, jumbo pretzels, hot dogs, beef jerky, and candy is what rounds out the menu at Savor.

On the east side concourse there is also another Savor stand, as well as a Tarragona Taco Stand, which sells various nachos and tacos with prices ranging from $7-$10. Coca-Cola is the soft drink provider of Pensacola Bay Center, with large drinks costing $5 and regular drinks costing $4. For alcohol you can purchase 20 oz. draft beer for $10 with the options of Bud Light, Michelob Ultra, Shock Top, or McGuire's Irish Red Ale. There is also a pop-up bar on the north side concourse with a better selection of alcoholic drinks.

Atmosphere 4

Pensacola Bay Center opened in 1985 and is typical of the civic center-style arenas built in mid-sized cities during that time period. With a seating capacity of 8,150 it remains the largest indoor venue in Northwest Florida. At over 35 years old the building is beginning to show its age, but it did receive some renovations as part of the agreement with the Sun Belt Conference – the most notable improvements include the new state-of-the art scoreboard that hangs over center court, which shows the game action as shown on TV. It replaced an old dot matrix style scoreboard from the 1990s. The new videoboard presentation is sharp, and with the LED ribbon that wraps around the videoboard is just the type of upgrade the building needed.

Also new for 2023 is the Sun Belt Fan Fest that takes place outside Pensacola Bay Center. Here you'll find live entertainment, vendor booths, food trucks, pop-up bars, and more, set up in the parking lot getting people in the mood. Each school was well represented at Fan Fest, with cheerleaders and mascots from each respective school making appearances. There was even a basketball court set up in the parking lot where you could practice your shot before heading into the venue, including various three-point, free throw, and HORSE competitions. Also, if you want to experience the beach life before coming to the game, the Pensacola Beach Trolley was making round trips from the Beach to Pensacola Bay Center; about a 15-minute drive.

There is one entrance on the west side where the box office is located – fans walk up a winding ramp to the third floor where the entrance is. Inside the venue there is a lower level that wraps around the building, with an upper level on the east and west sides. The concourse is designed in a wraparound configuration, with the east and west concourses featuring the concession stands, plus a small merch table that sells various Sun Belt Conference gear.

The arena does have a dark and cavernous feel to it; I've seen plenty of hockey games in the building, and the feeling is not as evident for hockey as it is for basketball. I think this might have something to do with all the tarps and curtains put in for basketball, making it seem really dark then. However, the sound system and acoustics echo off the hardwood floor a lot better than they do on the ice.

The Sun Belt Conference logo is everywhere throughout the building, inside and outside – there is no denying what tournament is being played here, from the giant logos outside the venue to the curtains and banners surrounding the court, and of course the actual court itself.

Neighborhood 4

Pensacola Bay Center is located in downtown right at the foot of the I-110 bridge. The arena is located around some parking lots, but a couple of blocks over takes you to Palafox Street, where you should be able to find every kind of bar and restaurant imaginable. Popular bars and restaurants on this strip include the pricey Jackson's Steakhouse, O'Riley's Pub, Intermission, Graffiti Pizza, World of Beer, Wild Greg's Saloon, Taco Agave, Old Hickory Whiskey Bar, Blend Lounge, Tin Cow, Play Pensacola, and many more.

Also downtown is the famed Seville Quarter, which is modeled after the New Orleans French Quarter. This block features seven bars and restaurants, with the oldest and most famous being Rosie O'Grady's. Famous for its hurricane cocktails and dueling pianos, this two-story bar has been serving patrons since the 1920s. The Seville Quarter is also filled with other options such as End of the Alley, Marlene Aviators Pub, Apple Annie's, Palace Oyster Bar, and the upscale District Steak & Seafood.

The closest bar within walking distance of Pensacola Bay Center is the famous McGuire's Irish Pub. Over 100,000 one-dollar bills line the ceiling and prices are reasonable, unless you want to try the famous McGuire's $100 burger. Across the street from McGuire's are Fish House and Atlas Oyster House, two popular seafood spots overlooking the bay. There are also three breweries in downtown as well – Gulf Coast Brewery, Emerald Republic, and Pensacola Bay Brewery.

Pensacola is also home to the famous Blue Angels, based at Pensacola Naval Air Station. If you have never seen the Blue Angels you must see them – they fly through the air upside down and in different formations; it is quite a view to see. The Blue Angels begin their spring practices at the beginning of March, so if you are lucky you may catch them flying over the beach or Pensacola Bay Center while practicing. And if you want to make a beach trip, the beaches of Pensacola Beach are located on Santa Rosa Island just across the bay; there are tons of attractions on the island as well. There also tons of hotels to stay at – the closer to the water the more expensive the rooms.

Fans 3

You cannot pick a more prime location to have the Sun Belt basketball tournament than in Pensacola. Right in the middle of the Sun Belt region, it makes the commute easy for most of the schools' fanbases. Pensacola is also a destination city, with many people taking advantage of the warm Florida weather to come down here to spend a week at the beach, while getting to watch their team play – the weekend games are obviously more packed than the earlier round games.

By the Championship game on Monday, I would say the venue is about 70% full; for each game there are at least a couple thousand of each team's respective fan bases there, with lots of family and friends of players who made the trip down. Outside at the Fan Fest you can find fans from all 14 schools fanbases well represented. You could also tell that a lot of people who came from out of town are staying on the beach, because the trolley is constantly dropping people off. I saw many fans walking around at Fan Fest with island drinks in their hands that they brought over on the beach trolley. Pensacola Beach is cool little beach resort community on a barrier island with tons of beach bars, dive bars, and seafood restaurants, as well as plenty of shopping.

I would say the school with the most fans would be conference newcomer for the 2022-23 season, Southern Miss. The Golden Eagles had their best season in recent memory and were Conference champs, plus Hattiesburg is only about 120 miles away, so the Golden Eagles faithful flocked to Pensacola for the tournament – you could see yellow and gold all throughout the building when they played. South Alabama, Troy, and Louisiana also travel really well, and Old Dominion actually had a nice selection of fans as well, for a school as far away as it is.

Access 4

The Bay Center is located at the southern end of I-110, a north and south auxiliary road that connects I-10 to downtown Pensacola, with the arena about 10 minutes south of the main interstate through town. The building is not hard to miss, as it sits at the foot of I-110 and is the first thing most people will see when entering downtown.

There are many parking lots around the arena, charging $10 per car to park. New for the 2023 Tournament the Pensacola Beach trolley makes a stop here from the Beach, which is about a 15-minute drive to Pensacola Bay Center, costing $5 one way to make the trip. There are some other lots and metered parking nearby as well, but those further lots charge more than $10 to park at. Once inside the facility concourses are not crammed, so you should have no issue getting inside and getting to your seat. None of the games will be sellouts either, so you can move around as you please and not get hassled by ushers.

Return on Investment 3

General Admission tickets can be purchased for $18, while seating in the first five rows for single game tickets are $22. If you buy a ticket to an earlier game and want to stay for the next you are free to do so, as there are no ushers kicking people out in between games. However, there is a no re-entry policy, so once you leave the building you will have to purchase another ticket to get back in.

With general admission, parking, and food, one person could get in to watch a game for about $50, which is about average for a postseason D1 basketball tournament. I would consider this a good return on investment just because you are in a prime vacation destination in the panhandle of Florida, and are guaranteed to see a team play that'll get a chance to compete for the Final Four. Just remember the tournament takes place during prime Spring Break time in Pensacola, so finding a hotel room could be a nightmare – I recommend booking ahead of time if coming from out of town.

Extras 3

One extra for the upgrades Pensacola Bay Center undertook in order to host the tournament -- the new video board was what the venue needed to add that extra spark, and it definitely added a major league feel to the place.

The City also did an excellent job transforming Pensacola into the Sun Belt Conference's main headquarters for the week. The conference logo was on everything throughout town, from the bars and restaurants to the airport and beach. Because Pensacola does not have a D1 college in town, the city has adopted this tournament – for one week the city becomes a major college town.

The staff also did an excellent job at Pensacola Bay Center as well. Outside the venue were 14 giant inflatable basketballs located at the main entrance, each with the 14 different Sun Belt team logos on it. At night the giant SBC logo was illuminated from the top of the building for everyone in downtown to see, while inside the venue the main colors that stand out are yellow and blue, from countless conference logo signs and banners hung up around the court. All 14 teams have banners high above Pensacola Bay Center as well.

The Fan Fest going on outside is also a plus, as well as the trolleys that brought fans to the venue. Pensacola Sports and the Sun Belt Conference definitely go all out with this tournament every year.


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