Photo Courtesy UC Santa Barbara
Stadium Info FANFARE Score: 3.71
UCSB Events Center University of California Santa Barbara Isla Vista, CA 93117
Year Opened: 1979
Five Men Enter
The UCSB Events Center is so named only as a formality. In every capacity except official, the arena is known as the Thunderdome. The 5,600 seat multi-purpose arena was opened in 1979 and simply called the Campus Events Center. Its fierce reputation didn’t fully take shape until just under a decade later when the team started to see increased success and increasing crowds. In 1987, the team throttled Jim Valvano’s NC State team at home in front of a raucous crowd, and the stadium became known from then on as The Thunderdome. With a nickname like the Thunderdome written across the arena facade, the UCSB Events Center atmosphere had better not disappoint. Fortunately, it doesn’t.
UC Santa Barbara itself is a general member of the University of California system and home to over 22,000 students. Located 100 miles northwest of Los Angeles and 8 miles northwest of Santa Barbara along US 101, the UCSB campus rests on the scenic coast overlooking the Pacific Ocean. The Gauchos compete in the Big West in all sports and are better known for soccer and water polo, although their basketball program has had sustained periods of slight national relevancy.
Food & Beverage 3
Concessions at the Thunderdome consist of pretty average stadium food, so there’s not a whole lot of spectacular to report here. The variety is decent enough and the hot dogs are much better sized than average (and piping hot). Pricing is definitely reasonable, with nothing on the menu exceeding $5. It’s enough to meet standard expectations and the taste isn’t substandard, so you could do worse at a small school venue. But there’s nothing here to jump out of your seat for.
Let’s call this a very pleasant surprise. The atmosphere at the Thunderdome lives up to its name and rivals a lot of much bigger name basketball schools. Right away, the “Thunderdome” lettering above the door surrounded by two giant banners lets you know there is passion and energy ahead of you. And once the Thunderdome starts rocking, it’s easy to get wrapped up in the occasion.
The arena itself has a very unique and decorated feel. From the giant banners at either end of the court identifying the Gaucho greats to the wooden rafters holding the scoreboard over mid court, the Thunderdome is anything but a cookie cutter arena. Surrounded by four sections of bleachers, the arena takes almost a cross shape with the court being the center. The bleachers on either side of the court are large and rise up to the height of the wooden rafters. The end court bleachers go back about half the distance of the sideline rafters and back up to wall length banners of Gaucho legends such as Richard Anderson, Don Ford, and Brian Shaw.
The student section actually seems to surround the court on three sides, demonstrating the passion on campus for Gauchos basketball. The band sits behind one of the baskets and is very engaged throughout the game, but is often drowned out by the other students. A student leads the cheers and performs raps and chants that really work to get the crowd fired up. It’s truly a great small school atmosphere.
For a lot of people, Santa Barbara is a city from an 80’s soap opera. In real life, it’s a place where everyone and everything is beautiful. The city itself is a very expensive place to live or visit, but it’s more than worth it and there’s plenty to do. Make a long weekend out of this trip and enjoy this beach side paradise.
Things to see in nearby Santa Barbara include the Old Mission, Santa Barbara Zoo, Santa Barbara Art Museum, historic city hall, the Museum of Natural History and of course, the beach. Nearby you can catch a boat to the Channel Islands National Park. Wine country also surrounds Santa Barbara for those looking for some more rustic settings. And if nothing else, the mountain drives inland from the city are absolutely beautiful.
Hotels are abundant in the area as well, but expect to pay a little bit more to stay in the immediate Santa Barbara area. For those looking for more affordable options, a 20 to 30 minute drive north and south along 101 will offer accommodations in the smaller surrounding towns. If you’re willing to spend the extra money I’d strongly recommend staying near the heart of town so you can walk the beautiful streets of Santa Barbara.
Restaurants are incredibly easy to find. I could list an endless amount of excellent options, but one of my favorite parts of Santa Barbara is the random cozy cafes that line the streets downtown. Brunch is an art form on the main streets, so don’t miss out on the opportunity to explore.
What make the Gaucho faithful so great are the students. The student section all but surrounds the court and extends all the way to the rafters on the sideline section. Gauchos basketball is the place to be on campus on game day.
During the game, it’s loud and energetic. A student leads the chants, raps, dances and creates all around energy at every opportunity during the game. The fans chant, stomp the bleachers, cheer, make signs and generally make the moniker of the Thunderdome come to life. The band also engages continuously with the fans and has their own set of chants, cheers and actions. Overall, the Thunderdome boasts a pretty intimidating home court advantage.
Santa Barbara is pretty easy to navigate as the 101 hugs the coast through the city. UCSB is located about eight miles northwest of the city directly along 101. Traffic is light and it’s easy to get around the area. Potentially the only issue with access here is the distance to the major hub of Los Angeles. Because of the mountains and the coast, the only way to get anywhere is to follow the 101. Los Angeles is about 100 miles southeast which can make for a lengthy drive. There is really nothing to the north of Santa Barbara until you hit the Pismo Beach area. There is a smaller airport in Santa Barbara basically right next to campus, so there is an option to fly directly into the Santa Barbara area as well. But it’s likely to be a bit costlier than using the major hub of LAX.
Once on campus, the stadium is easy to find and is a part of a larger athletic complex with shared parking. There are two lots immediately outside the arena and a parking garage if both lots fill. Parking is an inexpensive $3.
Stadium access is easy as well. The gates nearest the parking structure are for students only, so you’ll want to circle around to the parking lot side and enter from the main gate below the Thunderdome logo. You enter at court level which makes any handicapped seating easy. The cheaper tickets are up a flight of stairs in the upper half of the bleachers. Restrooms and concessions can be found in the corners of the arena and are easily accessible from anywhere.
Return on Investment 4
There are a lot of passionate fan bases and wild atmospheres in college basketball, but most of them can’t be had at this value. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not claiming this is Duke, UCLA, or Kentucky. But it is a very good atmosphere for the level of college basketball you’re getting. For a $12 ticket, $3 parking and $5 meal, you’re getting quite a show.
For all the good things about a UC Santa Barbara game, it’s actually pretty straightforward and there aren’t a ton of frills. The setting of Santa Barbara is clearly a plus that not many schools can compete with. And the Thunderdome name and atmosphere definitely are worth the visit.
Basically, this is a prototypical great small school atmosphere. The passion, the venue and the setting combine to make a trip to UCSB to see the Gauchos a very worthwhile investment.