Over the past few seasons, I’ve been fortunate enough to cover some of UK’s SEC road games for KSR. Along the way, I’ve also been reviewing the venues across the SEC, and on Saturday, I visited Florida’s Stephen C. O’Connell Center for the first time. It was…interesting. Before we get rolling, here are my past reviews:
Stephen C. O’Connell Center, aka “The O-Dome”
Seating capacity: 11,548
The O-Dome is weird. Let’s just get that out of the way right now. It’s right beside the beautiful Ben Hill Griffin Stadium–aka “The Swamp”–which doesn’t help things, but still, it’s just this big white blob on Florida’s campus. They’ve done their best to pretty it up with plenty of palm trees and brick planters, but from the outside, it’s pretty meh.
Thankfully, the O-Dome will undergo a $45-50 million renovation after this season, so the place will get a facelift. It needs it. The renovation is scheduled to be completed in December 2015, so Florida is planning a barnstorming tour of the state for its non-conference games. To see pics of what the new O-Dome will look like, click here.
The O-Dome also houses Florida’s pool, track, and gymnastics facilities, so the basketball arena only takes up a portion of it, making the whole environment a little weird. I’ll discuss the concourses in the next session, but the inside of the arena itself is relatively nice. At 11,000+, it’s tiny, but that means there aren’t any bad seats.
What makes the O-Dome different than most arenas is that the students/crowd are RIGHT on top of you. Most SEC gyms have at least three feet of unobstructed space off the court, whereas the O-Dome only has about a foot, even less near the scorers table. Shannon Spake used her nifty purple ruler to demonstrate this:
As a result, the crowd is a part of the game more than at any other SEC venue. The media sits in chairs (computers in laps!) in a row right behind the TV/radio guys, so the student section–aka the Rowdy Reptiles–looms over you throughout the game. More on that later.
Because the O-Dome is a multi-purpose facility, the layout is strange; however, because Florida’s arena is so tiny, it’s not that big of an issue. Yes, you walk in next to the pool and over the track, but it didn’t seem to get crowded enough to be an issue. It’s pretty bizarre though.
One thing I did like was the number of TVs in the concourse, which showed highlights and the AP Top 10 rankings, along with scores. Because it’s always nice to be reminded UK is #1, I’ll give them half a point for that.
Pretty much your standard fare of hot dogs, cheeseburgers, popcorn, nachos, etc. There was a Dominos kiosk selling pizzas and “Chocolate Lava Crunch Cakes,” which sound and look disgusting. The one specialty stand I found was “Everglades BBQ Company,” so at least there was a faint attempt at originality.
Hot dog price: $4
Confession time: I did not sample the popcorn…GASP! The hotel I stayed at had free popcorn in the lobby that afternoon and I couldn’t resist. So, instead, I’ll judge the O-Dome’s popcorn on that popcorn. It was DELICIOUS. Chillin in my room eating fresh buttery popcorn and drinking Diet Coke while watching basketball is not a bad life, my friends. The Sleep Inn’s popcorn was a bit heavy on the butter, but I was feeling indulgent and it was free, so no complaints. I saw plenty of people with the O-Dome’s popcorn and it looked tasty too.
Signature food: 3
As mentioned earlier, there was only one specialty stand in the arena that I could see: Everglades BBQ Company. You could get a pulled pork sandwich for $7, or a “Swamp Dog,” a hot dog with onions, chili, sauerkraut, cole slaw and jalapenos, for $5.50. And of course, Gatorade, because Florida loves nothing more than the fact that Gatorade was invented there.
The one I used was very clean and nice. Florida even has fancy energy-saving toilets with two flushing options, and I appreciated how much paper towel the automatic dispenser gave me. Most of them don’t give you enough, and it’s annoying to wait for the sensor to reload. #FirstWorldProblems
The O-Dome may be the only other SEC venue than Rupp without a center-hung scoreboard. Instead, a set of speakers hangs from the middle and there are video boards in the corners. Those were added in December 2006. In the new renovation, they’re supposed to get a fancy new center-hung scoreboard with video boards. Yet we still can’t get rid of Big Bertha. Why???
PA System/announcer/music: 5
Florida’s arena may have seen better days, but they more than make up for it with in-game entertainment. Whoever is in charge of the music does an EXCELLENT job, playing a good mix of old favorites and new stuff. When “Uptown Funk” came on, every single fan was on their feet dancing, which is exactly how it should be. The announcer was fine, although it was so loud in there at times it was hard to hear him. During some of the timeouts, they had an emcee come out ala Ryan Lemond, except this guy was young, hip, and wearing a bowtie and orange pants with blue alligators on them. Your move, Ryan.
The event staff handed out orange and blue LED light sticks to each fan who walked in the door, and before the game, they turned out all the lights, creating a cool effect. The drumline also came out and performed, which was really neat. I’m not sure how many drummers are in the pep band, but this could be something fun and easy to do in Rupp.
Fun stuff: 5
Florida had all the cams–kiss cam, dance cam, flex cam, and even a Lion King Cam where fans are encouraged to lift another person up like Simba. It really is hilarious. (Just think, Karl Towns could lift Tyler Ulis up and it would be adorable.) The dance cam was great as well because it showcased Florida’s version of Dancing Guy, an older man with a huge white mustache. He was a super star:
I think that calls for a dance off between him and Dancing Guy at the SEC Tournament.
Pep band: 4.5
I already mentioned the drumline, but the pep band was good too. They played a lot of new stuff, which I always appreciate.
Halftime show: 3.5
I went in search of food during halftime, but they had little kids playing basketball, which the crowd seemed to LOVE. They had to play around the College GameDay desk, which was pretty interesting. Meanwhile, in the media room, the entertainment was trying to watch reporters figure out how use a soda gun. More on that later.
The aforementioned orange and blue LED light sticks. Really neat, although I’m not sure about their battery life. As the sorority girl in the bathroom with me said, “OMG we should totally go raid the box of those for our next mixer! They just left like three of those boxes up there!” I enjoy how the UK fans in attendance only took blue ones and used them during every “Go Big Blue” chant. BBN will take your free stuff and use it against you.
Ticket price: 4
Tickets range from $10 to $35 depending on the game (I’ll let you guess which game costs $35), and since the arena is so small, there are no bad seats. Like other SEC schools, Florida wisely pairs the Kentucky game with other games to make fans buy more tickets. This season, you had to buy tickets to at least one non-conference game and an SEC game to be eligible for tickets to the Kentucky game. That’s really smart on Florida’s part.
Very nice, no complaints.
Press area/meal: 3
Full on my Sleep Inn popcorn, I did not partake in the pregame press meal, but I hear it was very nice: BBQ, veggies, even salad, which is unheard of at most of these things. Hilariously, they had two soda guns at the drink station with no one to explain how to use them. I’d wager most media folk have never worked a restaurant job before, so watching them try to figure it out was priceless. I can’t say much, I struggled as well, but thankfully a nice person came up and told me that Q was Diet Pepsi, and that’s all I needed to hear.
The press area itself was pretty standard and crappy, just a large cement block room split in half with curtains so that the media can work on one side and coaches/players can do the press conference on the other. The best part was the media seating–right in front of the Rowdy Reptiles. Just a row of chairs, no table to put your laptops on or anything. This was my first time there, so I didn’t know what to expect and was a little shocked by it all; however, free seats are free seats and unlike those around me, I wasn’t going to complain. During most of the game, the Rowdy Reptiles were pretty much kicking the backs of our chairs, screaming in our ears, and peppering our keyboards with stray bits of pom pom and spit, but after a lot of Advil and a day on the heating pad, I like to think it added to the overall experience.
Good news, media folk: in the renovation, the press area will be relocated to one of the corner sections.
Student Section: 5
Best in the SEC, hands down. Loud, obnoxious, and in some cases, downright vulgar. They came in costumes and screamed the entire time, especially at Dakari Johnson, who seemed to bear the brunt of the insults. Although I firmly believe this is a team that thrives on hostile environments, the crowd noise did rattle Kentucky at times, as did Florida making shots they haven’t all season. Typical. Thankfully, the Cats recovered in time to have the last laugh, and that guy with the “Dakari Johnson can’t read” sign was exposed as the total moron he is.
BBN Effect: 4.5
Gainesville isn’t exactly close to Kentucky, but there were still a LOT of Kentucky fans in the building. With gas prices low and the weather ideal, a strong contingent of the BBN made the trip. It was the perfect day for porch drinking, and the BBN certainly did, all day long. Two hours before tipoff, “GO BIG BLUE” chants took over The Swamp Bar & Restaurant near the arena and some Florida fans were dumb enough to try to respond with “0-3” chants. This ain’t last season, bud. A round of “22-0” chants shut them up real quick.
At the arena, as it has all season, blue got in. It was hard to judge how many by looking because most Florida fans wore blue too, but there were SEVERAL loud “Go Big Blue” chants throughout the night, and as Florida fans headed to the exits at the end, the BBN stuck around to make the O-Dome feel like Rupp Arena south during Cal’s postgame SportsCenter appearance.
GBB chant count: 9
I will never understand why anyone would live in Florida and NOT live on the coast. Aside from the beach and the Everglades, Florida is pretty gross. If you’ve driven one long flat road with those odd low stoplights, you’ve driven them all. I think it says a lot about Gainesville that, aside from the stadium, the most interesting thing there is a pedestrian bridge. Half a point for all the Spanish moss, because that stuff is beautiful in a weird, broke-down kind of way.
About The Swamp. I wasn’t expecting it to be as nice as it was. Maybe that’s because on TV, they pretty much only show those concrete walls with the writing on them, which kind of cheapen the place. On the outside, it’s all brick and glass and gorgeous. It’s open to the public so you can go run the stairs or hang out and take selfies. I did the latter, not the former.
There’s also this gator statue outside, which makes for some pretty “That’s so Florida” type of photoshoots:
Overall atmosphere: 4.5
There is no other venue in the SEC like the O-Dome, even if it’s like that Spanish moss: kind of weird and broke-down. The facility is in desperate need of renovation, and it’s getting one, but when it’s rocking like it was on Saturday, there’s a little bit of magic in there.
Total score: 74/100
Auburn Arena: 84/100
South Carolina’s Colonial Life Arena: 77.5/100
Alabama’s Coleman Coliseum: 76.75/100
Vanderbilt’s Memorial Gymnasium: 71.5/100
Ole Miss’ Tad Smith Coliseum: 68.5/100