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  • Writer's pictureDavid Welch

Thompson-Boling Arena at Food City Center – Tennessee Volunteers

Photos by David Welch, Stadium Journey

Stadium Info FANFARE Score: 4.43

Thompson-Boling Arena at Food City Center 1600 Phillip Fulmer Way Knoxville, TN 37916

Year Opened: 1987

Capacity: 21,678


Good Ol’ Rocky Top...Woooooo!..Rocky Top Tennessee

About a full court’s heave from the banks of the Tennessee River, Thompson-Boling Arena at Food City Center has served as the home court of the Tennessee Volunteers men’s and women’s basketball programs since 1987, replacing the Stokley Athletic Center. With a capacity of 21,678, Thompson-Boling Arena at Food City Center is the fourth-largest college basketball arena in the country. 2007 would see major renovations that added a wall of suites and club seating to the arena, decreasing the capacity from over 24,000 to the current 21,000+.

The venue is named in honor of B. Ray Thompson, a key benefactor in the arena’s construction, and Dr. Ed Boling, former UT president and pioneer in raising the profile of women’s athletics at the University of Tennessee. In 2023 the arena added Food City Center to the moniker, as the supermarket chain secured a 10-year naming-rights agreement.

Since joining the Southeastern Conference (SEC) in 1932, the Volunteers have established themselves as one of the more successful programs in the conference, winning 11 regular seasons championships, tied for the second most in SEC history, and 5 conference tournament titles.


Food & Beverage   5

Thompson-Boling Arena at Food City Center does well to provide fans with a wide selection of concessions choices, from stadium favorites to regional and national chains. Choices from eastern Tennessee’s Calhoun's include their BBQ brisket, pulled pork sandwiches, nachos, burgers, and beer cheese dip. Another Tennessee chain, Petro’s Chili & Chips, offers up their “Original Petro”, which is essentially a walking taco in a cup. Another stand is dedicated to hot sandwiches and sausages, including various forms of cheesesteak, hoagies, and Italian or Polish sausages. Limited choices from national chains Moe’s Southwest Grill and Papa John’s are also options.

Carts around the concourse offer up everything from popcorn and pork rinds to Italian ice and chocolate-dipped cheesecake.

Beverages include those from the Coca-Cola family, Powerade, and Dasani bottled water. 24-ounce cans of several domestic beers are also sold, along with Truly and Bud Lite Premium Seltzers, as well as Twisted Tea. The lone craft style beer is from Sweet Water Brewing.

Lines do get rather backed up at concessions stands, even during play, so trying to get food before the game starts might be your best bet, as not to spend a lot of time waiting in line.


Atmosphere   5

When Tennessee builds stadiums, they tend to go big. Neighboring Neyland Stadium holds more than 101,000 football fans, making it the 6th largest college football stadium in the county. The trend of massively large stadiums continues with basketball at Tennessee, as Thompson-Boling is the 4th largest arena in college basketball, holding 21,678 fans.

From the outside, the hulking, elongated octagonal Thompson-Boling Arena at Food City Center seems to be a bit out of date with what appears to be beige, corrugated aluminum siding, but once through the doors the arena offers a spacious, modern vibe for visitors. Dual levels of black seating nicely complement the orange and white colors of the Vols. The upper seating bowl is broken up by three levels of premium seats and suites.

The pregame festivities foreshadow the excitement that entertains fans throughout the game – either from the in-house DJ who plays the hits from the ‘80s, ‘90s, and today, to the Tennessee pep band who reigns supreme as they belt out rounds of one of the most recognizable fight songs in the nation, “Rocky Top”.

As festivities move from pregame entertainment to pyrotechnics, a light show amps fans up leading to player introductions and the opening tip. As players are introduced, the house spotlights randomly twirl around the seating bowl while Tennessee mascot, Smokey the Bluetick Coonhound, dances upon a fog machine as flames and sparks shoot high into the air around him; Tennessee basketball puts on one impressive show even before the ball is thrown up.

Tennessee's use of their trademark orange and white checkerboard adds a distinctive touch to the game presentation. It is not uncommon for the arena’s seating sections to be checkered orange-and-white, whether through strategically placed T-shirts or glow sticks.

Throughout the game, the entertainment does not stop. Two in-game hosts take fans through several segments to keep their excitement and passion for Big Orange at a high level, either by hosting on-court games, firing t-shirts from a rapid-fire cannon into the seats, or simply staying out of the way so the pep band and spirit squads can do their thing.

Game information is seamlessly integrated throughout the arena, mainly via the center-hung scoreboard, consisting of eight individual rectangular screens, and two separate halo-ribbon boards. The television feed is available on the larger screens at the top of the scoreboard, while player statistics can be found on the smaller lower screens. Additional screens in the upper corners, as well as a ribbon board along the upper-level façade, provides additional game info, including more television feeds of the game, player scores, fouls, and "Hustle Stats" such as blocks, rebounds, steals, and assists.


Neighborhood   5

Thompson-Boling Arena at Food City Center is neighbored by the famed Neyland Stadium, home of the Tennessee Volunteers football team, and baseball’s Lindsey Nelson Stadium, all on the southern edge of campus. The Knoxville Ice Bears of the Southern Professional Hockey League also play less than two miles down Neyland Drive at Knoxville Civic Coliseum.

The University of Tennessee is a bit of a rarity in that it has a campus with a college town feel, despite being in a city of almost 200,000 people – UT is practically cordoned off from the rest of Knoxville by White Avenue to the north and the Tennessee River that horseshoes around the south of campus.

One of the most iconic landmarks in the city, the Knoxville Sunsphere, is about a 1-mile walk from campus; this orange tinted globe rises 266-feet over Knoxville. The 1982 World’s Fair relic is even open for visitors to ride to the top of, to get a bird's eye-view of Knoxville.  Basketball fans might also enjoy a visit to the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame, which is a 5-minute drive from Tennessee’s campus.

If looking for a bit of the college town experience, the bars along “The Strip” are just a short walk from the riverfront along Cumberland Avenue. Or, those looking for a bit more of a dining and drinking experience might head toward Gay Street with its higher concentration of restaurants, breweries, and night life. A touch further are Market Square and Knoxville’s Old City neighborhood, which are both highly populated with more shops, restaurants, and nightlife. In the coming years, Knoxville’s Old City neighborhood will be home to minor league baseball, as the Tennessee Smokies move back to Knoxville for the 2025 season.


Fans   4

The Volunteer faithful might be one of the most passionate fanbases in the nation – their pride in the Vols extends throughout the entirety of the sports programs at Tennessee. In fact, the Volunteers men’s basketball program ranks in the top five in the nation in attendance, drawing more than 19,000 fans a night.

The “Rocky Top Rowdies”, Tennessee’s student section, do bring a lot of energy and passion to the atmosphere. The intensity of the Vols student section cannot be underestimated, as the Rowdies tend to push the limits of rowdiness from time-to-time, albeit in line with what might be expected from a major college basketball experience. Students fill the sections at both ends of the floor, so there is no escaping the barrage of intensity brought on by the Rocky Top Rowdies toward the opponents.

Although the arena is loud in response to plays, it lacks a constant buzz of energy found in similar types of arenas. It's not that Tennessee's fans lack enthusiasm; rather, they tend to be more reactive than proactive in generating noise.


Access   4

Thompson-Boling Arena at Food City Center is at the southernmost part of Tennessee's campus. It can easily be reached via I-40, which cuts through Knoxville from west to east, connecting to Highway 129 along the southern edge of the city. If flying in to see the Vols, the airport servicing Knoxville is about 10 miles south in Alcoa.

Parking options, including lots and garages, are mainly on the northern side of the arena and in the G-10 garage to the east. If looking to save on parking there are free lots which offer shuttle service to and from the arena, while those using rideshare will find the drop-off/pickup lot beyond the right field fence of Lindsey Nelson Stadium, along Todd Helton Drive.

Knoxville Area Transit (KAT) offers a free trolley line connecting the UT campus to downtown Knoxville, with the Circle Park stop on the Orange Line being the closest to the basketball arena.

To enter Thompson-Boling Arena at Food City Center, most fans use entry ramps at the northwest and southwest corners. Security checks are done away from the arena’s entry points, creating a small plaza area. There are six sets of doors, three on each side of the venue, where tickets can be scanned before entering. Inside, a single concourse encircles the top of the lower seating bowl, with stairs leading to the upper level. The open design ensures a clear view of the court from almost any point around the arena.

Return on Investment   3

In recent years, Tennessee has established itself as one of the top teams in college basketball. With this success comes a high demand for tickets. Tennessee utilizes Ticketmaster for sales, so be prepared for hefty markups on the face value of tickets. Typical secondary market prices will run from the $20 to $100 range for conference games, prior to fees being added – it is just hard to find value in the overall price of the ticket when it is marked up 33% to nearly 50%.

If looking for the most reasonable ticket rates, either plan far enough in advance to avoid the secondary market, or look for a non-conference opponent over one of the two holiday breaks; these games might not have as high of a demand.

Parking can also be a bit of an expense to consider. These are not the eye-popping rates that Tennessee football must have, but university lots run $20 for lots around the arena. However, there are also free lots that offer shuttles from the G-17 lot or the UT Veterinary Medical Center (see the parking link referenced above).

Concessions see the typical sports arena markup, so inflated prices should not come as much of a shock.


Extras   5

The concourse serves as a journey through Tennessee basketball history, showcasing both the men’s and women’s programs. UT Olympians, NBA and WNBA players, and other notable individual and program achievements are also recognized.

Tennessee frequently has some sort of special experience up their sleeves when it comes to setting the atmosphere for the game. Whether it is orange and white t-shirts or glow sticks laid out in the Vols trademark checkerboard pattern, a nod to the brickwork of Ayers Hall, or simply an amazing pregame light show, there is a lot going on to get the fans worked up before the game.

The rafters of Thompson-Boling Arena at Food City Center are full of banners recognizing the team and individual successes of the Vols basketball programs – on the men’s side this includes Chris Lofton (5), Dale Ellis (14), Alan Houston (20), Ernie Grunfeld (22), Bernard King (53), and coaches Ray Mears and John Ward.

Shortly after the final horn, the Tennessee pep band, along with the spirit squad, stretch across half-court to sing with alumni as the school’s alma mater is played.

While Smokey mostly restricts his movements during the game to the Vols end of the floor, limiting the number of fans who get an opportunity to interact with him, after the game he stays to take picture after picture with the long line of fans waiting for that photo op.


Final Thoughts

As of late 2023, the University of Tennessee Board of Trustees approved funding for the creation of a Neyland Entertainment District to feature a hotel, condos, shops, and restaurants. While the start of construction has not been pinpointed, the University of Tennessee Master Plan does project completion within the next five years. This will only complement the already top-notch basketball game day experience in Knoxville.

Historically, the University of Tennessee has been one of the more successful college basketball programs in the SEC, and the success on the floor has translated to success at the gates. It would be easy for a facility as large as Thompson-Boiling Arena at Food City Center to have a lot of empty seats, but the Volunteer faithful do a good job filling it on a regular basis.

Life in the SEC can be difficult for basketball programs to cut out their own niche, and stay out of the shadow of the university’s football and sometimes even baseball programs. However, Tennessee basketball has created their own spotlight to bask in. While basketball will likely never supplant football as the featured program in Knoxville, they have established themselves as one of the top college basketball experiences in the county.

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