The Arena at Northwest Florida State College – NWF Raiders
Photos by Matt Colville, Stadium Journey
Stadium Info FANFARE Score: 3.29
The Arena at Northwest Florida State College 100 E College Blvd Niceville, FL 32578
Year Opened: 2011
Basketball on the Emerald Coast
Northwest Florida State College is a large public state college located in Niceville, FL about 10 miles north of the beach resort town of Destin. The college originally opened in 1963 as Okaloosa-Walton Community College, and a temporary campus was constructed on the base of nearby Eglin Air Force Base, until the permanent location opened in its present site in 1969. The college began offering four-year degrees in 2003, and became an official state college in 2008, changing its name to Northwest Florida State College in the process. NWF currently has an enrollment of about 15,000 students, which makes it the largest college between Pensacola and Tallahassee.
NWF is unique in that even though they offer four-year degrees they still compete on the JUCO level as members of NJCAA Panhandle Conference. The conference includes 5 schools, all in the panhandle area of Florida – Pensacola State College, Gulf Coast State College, Chipola College, and Tallahassee Community College are the four other schools that compete in the conference.
Since the Panhandle Conference was formed in the 1991-92 season, the Raiders have been one of the better teams in the league, winning 9 conference titles and 4 FCSAA Florida state championships. They have made the NJCAA Tournament 11 times, and made the NJCAA national championship game four times (1995, 2012, 2013 & 2015), winning two national championships in the process (1994-95 and 2014-15). In addition, over the past two seasons NWF has had 17 players sign with D1 teams, including every sophomore from the 2018-19 team, which was ranked number 1 in the country for most of the year.
Notable alumni include former Boston Celtics forward and 2001 number 11 NBA draft pick Kedrick Brown, former Washington Wizards point guard Donnell Taylor, former Phillies outfielder Jason Michaels, and former Nationals and Astros reliever Tony Sipp.
Food & Beverage 2
Even though The Arena at Northwest Florida State College is one of the nicest JUCO basketball facilities I have ever seen, the concessions could definitely use an upgrade – only the basics are sold here such as hamburgers and nachos ($4), hot dogs ($3), and popcorn and chips ($2). Coca-Cola is the soft drink provider with 20oz bottles selling for $2. If coming to a game here I recommend getting something to eat at one of the many seafood restaurants in Destin, as you won’t find much here, since Niceville doesn’t have too many places to eat.
Since 2011 NWF has played at the beautiful, state-of-the-art Arena at Northwest Florida State College, which is located on the north side of town. The sleek, modern complex rivals some Division 1 programs in terms of its atmosphere, and currently has a seating capacity of 2,442. The court faces east and west with the main entrance being located on the east side of the building. As soon as you enter there is an impressive World War II display located on the east side dedicated to former Air Force General Jimmy Doolittle, who was stationed at nearby Eglin AFB. You also get to find out how NWF got its nickname as the Raiders as well (more on that in the Extras section).
The first thing that struck me when entering the venue is I couldn’t believe this was a local JUCO arena. The facility is really nice and definitely still has that new feel to it despite being 8 years old. The venue has one wraparound concourse that wraps around the entire building. When the basketball team isn’t playing the concourse doubles as a jogging track as well. The basketball court itself has ten rows of comfortable, cushioned, chair back seats with cup holders, and they are designed with enough space so that you don’t disturb other people on the aisle when you get up to move around. Also, the concourse was designed to make sure you’ll never miss a second of the action, as you can walk the entire concourse and get a great view of the court at all times. The venue features two concessions stands and two sets of restrooms, one each located on the north and south sides. In addition, there are various displays spread out on the concourse as well, such as pictures of past Raider teams, scholar athletes, and a large Wall of Fame that takes up the entire north side of the concourse.
The rafters of the building are lined with a ton of different banners signifying feats and championships from all the school’s athletic programs. The two big national championship murals on the west side of the building stand out, as well as the huge HD scoreboard on the east side. The 11×29 foot scoreboard is very impressive for this level of basketball, and not only shows replay, but they also utilize the scoreboard for various promotions, and show cool graphics and hype videos that other schools at the JUCO level perhaps wouldn’t have the proper staff or budget to feature. I’ve been to several JUCO and smaller level D2 and D3 basketball facilities before, and The Arena at NWF College definitely has them all beat.
Niceville is a small military town home to Eglin Air Force Base and not much else. The campus itself is kind of in a secluded area to the north of the base; the only notable thing to visit in the immediate area is the U.S. Air Force Armament Museum, the largest collection of military weapons in the country. The museum also houses a large collection of World War II era planes. Other than that, however, there is not a lot to do on the north side of Choctawhatchee Bay.
However, a short ten-minute drive across the Mid-Bay Bridge will take you into one of the most popular beach resort towns in the country. Nicknamed the World’s Luckiest Fishing Village, Destin has become one of the fastest growing beach towns in the country. Forty years ago Destin was a sleepy fishing town, void of any commercialism or tourism. 40 years later, though, the city attracts 3.7 million visitors a year. Driving over the bridge into Destin, the many high-rise buildings and the view of Crab Island to the north present some of the most spectacular and stunning views you’ll ever see. Crab Island is just one big sandbar filled with boats, floating bars, and blow up water slides, and is popular for its Billy Bowlegs Festival held every June. Destin has become a tourist trap in recent years, and it’s estimated that 80% of the visitors to the Emerald Coast visit this town. Because of this, many of the Destin restaurants and gas stations will have much higher prices than other towns north of the bay.
Destin is split up into two sections: Miramar Beach to the east and Holiday Isle to the west. The two areas are separated by Henderson Beach State Park, a popular spot for its bike trails and bird nesting grounds. Destin is home to many franchise and chain restaurants found in similar-sized cities such as Hooter’s, Joe’s Crab Shack, Bubba Gump Shrimp, and Miller’s Ale House, but there are also many local seafood restaurants as well. On the Holiday Isle side Back Porch is a popular restaurant with a bar located right on the beach, with picnic tables in the sand, while Harbor Docks is another popular place located right on the harbor – Hog’s Breath Saloon, Coyote Ugly, and Boshamps Oyster House are nearby as well. The Destin Harbor Boardwalk is a popular spot for tourists and includes a multitude of different shops lined along a boardwalk overlooking the water; Margaritaville, AJ’s Oyster Bar, and Brotula’s Seafood House are just some of the restaurants located on the boardwalk, while across the street is the popular McGuire’s Irish Pub as well as Dewey Destin’s.
The Miramar Beach side is where the locals hang out and tends to be less crowded. Popular restaurants on this stretch of beach include Club 790, Crab Trap, Capt. Dave’s on the Gulf, Pompano Joe’s, Whale Tail Beach Bar, and Lulu’s, another popular Jimmy Buffett-owned bar located on the north side overlooking the bay. For things to do besides water-related activities, there is Big Kahuna’s Water Park and The Track, which includes miniature golf, an arcade, kids’ rides, and bungee jumping. For shopping, the Destin Commons is a popular outdoor shopping center that includes Bass Pro Shops, Belk, World of Beer, Uncle Buck’s Fish & Bowl, a 14-screen movie theatre, and a bunch of other shops and restaurants. Lastly, Silver Sands Premium Outlets includes over 50 different outlet stores such as Nike, Columbia, Under Armour, and Polo.
In addition, Destin has the highest concentration of golf courses in the panhandle area with over 15 different resort-style 18-hole courses in the area. If staying the night on a budget, your best bet might be to make the 30-minute drive to Crestview up by the interstate, as Niceville is not home to many hotels, and staying the night in Destin will cost an arm and a leg.
The NWF Raiders have had a lot of success on the court in recent years, and the attendance shows that here. With the baseball opening weekend occurring during my most recent visit, many fans were treating this as doubleheader, watching the baseball team play and then walking next door to the Arena to watch the men’s and women’s teams play. With so much to do in the area for the locals it’s nice to see that they show up in numbers here. The Arena holds about 2,400 fans and I would say the building was 80% full for both the men’s and women’s games. Panhandle Conference schools are all located within 2-3 hours from each other, so each opposing team brings a strong fan base as well.
The athletic department at NWF does an astounding job at their overall presentation of the game. They had a small 30-person band sitting on the east side of the building – even though the membership is small they still had an intimidating presence, and you couldn’t tell the band was so small just by listening to them play. In between timeouts there are also a bunch of promotional contests, plus basketball bingo and 50/50 raffles going on throughout the building to keep the fans engaged. All along the concourse there are tables set-up, and there was also a local girl scout troop selling cookies, an alumni table, and a small stand selling various Raiders and NWF apparel.
There is also the Raider Club located on the north side of the building; this is a sectioned off lounge area for alumni and boosters with all the food and drink you could want. To say that I was impressed is an understatement; they definitely go all out here and present a top-notch experience. I was not expecting to see this level of commitment and fan engagement while attending a JUCO basketball game.
The campus itself is kind of hard to find if you are not familiar with the area. There are two ways to get here from the north and south – most people coming from out of town will come to Niceville from the north, in which case they would take Interstate 10 to Crestview, then drive about 20 minutes south on Highway 85. This highway is a rural two-lane back road with not a lot of scenery, but the college is conveniently located on the corner of College Blvd and Highway 85, with the basketball arena located at the front of campus right next to the baseball stadium. If coming from Destin or Fort Walton Beach, the campus is about 10 miles from the actual beach, but of course traffic will be a nightmare so it could take longer. The Mid-Bay Bridge is a two-lane bridge as well, and is constantly having work being done on it, so the three-mile bridge could take upwards of twenty minutes to cross.
Return on Investment 4
General admission tickets cost $7 and you are free to sit wherever you like. During most every game the women’s team plays before the men’s team, so sometimes the second game starts later than scheduled; because of this sometimes the ticket office closes early. For example, during my most recent visit the men’s game was scheduled to tip off at 7:30, so I arrived at about 6 pm to catch the end of the women’s game. That game actually went to OT, delaying the start of the men’s game until about 8:30. So by the time the men’s game actually tipped off the ticket office had closed, and fans were free to come and go without paying. I’m not sure if the ticket office closes early for every game, but most every men’s game starts at 7:30 and is preceded by the women’s game, so there is a good chance to get in free.
I consider visiting The Arena at Northwest Florida State College a good return on investment; even though the fact that this is still JUCO basketball, the majority of the players will sign with D1 teams, so you never know which next big time player you may be watching.
Since 2014 the college has hosted the Emerald Coast Classic, one of the premier college basketball tournaments. The 8-team, single elimination tournament is usually held during Thanksgiving week, and has become one of the more popular college basketball tournaments in the country. The first and second round games take place at their respective college campuses, while the third and championship rounds are scheduled to take place here, and are televised nationally on CBS Sports Network.
The Emerald Coast Classic attracts some pretty big name basketball programs as well – the 2019 tournament featured Florida State, Purdue, Tennessee, and VCU, while the 2020 tourney will feature Florida, Illinois, Iowa State, and Oregon. Past tournament participants include basketball powerhouses Baylor, Memphis, St. Bonaventure, and New Mexico, while past tournament winners include Florida State (2019), Cincinnati (2018), TCU (2017), Virginia (2016), Iowa State (2015), and Ole Miss (2014).
I urge all college basketball fans in the panhandle region to experience the Emerald Coast Classic; the prices are the same as they would be at an NWF game. A lot of the teams playing will make the NCAA Tournament, so you are getting to see some pretty big basketball schools for such a low price.
If you were wondering how NWF got its nickname the Raiders, then you are in luck – at the arena’s main entrance is a mini museum documenting artifacts, memorabilia, and interactive displays honoring former Air Force General Lt. Jimmy Doolittle and his crew, who were responsible for the Tokyo Air Raid. The raid served as retaliation for Japan’s bombing of Pearl Harbor four months prior. Training began on the secret mission in 1942 at a tiny airfield at Eglin Air Force Base. Eglin was selected due to its vast remoteness and number of fields available for training. The planes would only have 450 feet of runway space to take off from the aircraft carrier, so they practiced on smaller airfields and runways at Eglin.
On April 18, 1942 sixteen B-25s, dubbed “Doolittle’s Raiders,” took off from the deck of the U.S.S. Hornet in the Pacific Ocean, en route to bomb Japan. Due to detection by the Japanese, the planes had to take off sooner than expected, so they ended up running out of fuel and most were forced to crash land. Some crashed into the China Sea, while others were able to make it to China before crashing inland – despite this only two crew members lost their lives, even though fifteen of the sixteen planes were lost. The significance of this mission would mark a major turning point in the war, and Doolittle received the Congressional Medal of Honor for his efforts, and was promoted to Brigadier General of the U.S. Air Force.
When Okaloosa-Walton Community College opened in 1963, they were nicknamed the Raiders, in honor of Jimmy Doolittle and his crew, and for years the surviving members of Doolittle’s Raiders would hold their annual reunion at the campus and base until their final member died in 2013. NWF’s mascot even looks like a World War II era pilot, and is named Jimmy as well.
Whether you are here for the Emerald Coast Classic or are here watching NWF play, The Arena at Northwest Florida State College remains an excellent place to watch a basketball game. Ticket prices are cheap, concessions are cheap, and the atmosphere here is unlike any other JUCO level facility in the country. Visiting the Emerald Coast makes also for a great weekend – you can check out a basketball game and then visit the beach.