Last season, I went on the road to cover UK’s SEC road games. Ice storms have kept me from going to all of their road games this season, but I made the trek to Columbia, South Carolina, and even though the Cats laid an egg, I reviewed Colonial Life Arena.
Colonial Life Arena
Built: November 2002
Seating capacity: 18,000
I was suprised by how nice Colonial Life Arena is. Built in 2002, the arena has been well-preserved over the years, and with a contemporary brick and glass facade, fits in nicely in Columbia’s downtown area. Because there’s nothing South Carolina loves more than palmettos, it’s flanked by the state tree and has a nice fountain outside the main entrance.
Colonial Life Arena is actually the largest arena in the state of South Carolina, and was built to host NCAA Tournament games, but right before construction began, the NCAA banned South Carolina and Mississippi from hosting events because of protests by the NAACP, who objected to the presence of a Confederate battle flag flying near a soldier’s memorial at the nearby Statehouse grounds.
The inside of the arena is nice, especially the concourses, which are wide and flooded with natural light. There are 41 suites, four “entertainment suites,” and the Frank McGuire Club, a full-service hospitality room. All 18,000 seats have chair backs, site lines are good, and the suites are pretty standard, albeit a bit dated. All in all, the interior of the arena is pretty generic.
The concourse circles the arena, although it narrows towards the back of the arena near the Frank McGuire Club. The main entrances are easy to navigate, and from what I could tell, there were no major traffic issues.
This is where the Colonial Life Arena shines. Instead of several standard concession stands, each concession stand specializes in a different food or cuisine, from Little Caesars to BBQ to
oriental asian food to the beloved Carolina chain Bojangles. There are also unique food booths in the concourses to sell smoothies, pretzels, Dippin’ Dots, etc. The prices are pretty typical, with a “Sabrette Hot Dog” going for $3.50.
With the Cats playing their worst basketball of the year in the first half, it was going to take something really special to cheer me up at halftime. The food gods heard my plea and answered in the form of free popcorn, cookies, chips, and Diet Coke in the media room. I only had eyes for that red and white striped box, and it definitely revived me. Light and buttery with just the right amount of salt, and if not for a bit too much grease, it would have gotten a perfect score.
Signature food: 5
There wasn’t really one signature food at Colonial Life Arena, but because of the plethora of options (egg rolls at a basketball game? #WhyNot), I’ll still award full marks. Have you ever had Bojangles? It’s delicious.
Clean and nice. I especially like the circular sink with paper towel and soap dispensers mounted at eye level. Very convenient and a smart use of space for big crowds.
The scoreboard is center-hung, with four jumbotrons on each side, and although it’s nicer than Big Bertha, it’s definitely not as nice as others in the league, like Auburn’s or Ole Miss. I did like how they had individual scores listed on either side of the jumbotrons on all sides. You don’t realize how useful that is until you don’t have it.
PA System/announcer/music: 3
The music was the standard hip-hop/pop arena mix, with a noticeable amount of Pitbull thrown in just for Frank Martin, and of course, Sandstorm. Between the Sandstorm, the cock crowing clip they played every. single. timeout., and Baseline Jesus stomping the aluminum stands beside me, I had a hell of a headache by the end of the game. But, I’m guessing that was their intent, so well done.
Fun stuff: 2.5
Nothing spectacular, but they did throw t-shirts into the crowd. There was a hilarious trivia bit where they asked a fan to name as many basketball terms as they could in 15 seconds, and then showed a video of one of the players doing the same thing. Considering the BBN’s vast knowledge of the game, watching the South Carolina fan struggle was a bit sad, and yes, funny. For the kiddos, there was a bouncy house in the concourse.
Pep band: 3.5
Nothing groundbreaking, but they did do a rendition of Imagine Dragon’s “Radioactive” that I enjoyed. I’ve heard a few pep bands break that one out, and I approve. Again, it made me wish that UK’s pep band would shake it up a bit.
Halftime show: 2.5
Dance team and halfcourt shots, nothing special. I was more into the popcorn. (Larry Vaught was not.)
Shockingly, South Carolina didn’t have a special promotion for the UK game, so no t-shirt night, pom pom night, etc. They did distribute foam fingers to the people sitting along the sidelines, which you can see above.
Ticket price: 4
How much does it cost to see South Carolina play #1 Florida tomorrow night? A whopping $14. $20 if you want the fancy seats. Can’t beat that.
Very nice, no complaints.
Press area/meal: 3
The press area was pretty standard for SEC arenas, a cinderblock room with a podium at the front and chairs. The girl in charge of passing the microphone around to reporters after the game was NOT HAPPY with UK’s media asking questions without waiting their turn, and chided us for it afterwards. That poor girl was no match for a Jerry Tipton scorned.
I did not partake in the press meal, a sandwich and fries, but from what I could smell, it seemed fine. Again, props for the Diet Coke, popcorn, chips, and cookies.
Student Section: 4
There were plenty of empty seats, but the Gamecock fans in arena made their presence known in the second half after about 20 “Go Big Blue” chants from the BBN. It says a lot about South Carolina basketball (and therefore UK’s loss) that the fans didn’t really know how to prepare for the court storming.There was a lot of hesitancy–“Are we doing this???”–before they eventually moved towards the aisles like fawn taking their first steps. But, I will give them props for being loud in the final five minutes, and they totally deserved to rush the court. Their cheers and jeers were pretty lame though. After “Paypal Cal” was ejected, they turned their sights on John Robic, aka “Blondie,” yelling at him and “Kenny Walker” (actually Orlando Antigua and not even Kenny Payne…double fault) to sit down.
Also, he wasn’t technically part of the student section since he was probably 65-years-old, but “Baseline Jesus” was amazing. A South Carolina legend, the hippie nurse attends all USC basketball, football, and baseball games with his tattered and autographed Gamecock flag, Gamecock bandana, grey mullet, and yellow crocks. Even though the sound of him stomping the aluminum bleachers still rings in my ears, he was a true character.
BBN Effect: 5
I was stunned by the number of UK fans in Columbia. They showed up in droves, arriving by the busload at the Flying Saucer beforehand, creating a river of blue on the way to the arena, and drowning out South Carolina fans with “Go Big Blue” chants. I went to the hotel bar after I was done with postgame stuff to find it full of UK fans drowning their sorrows. Hilariously, one group behind me got into a big debate about bourbon, which led to them asking the bartender for a whole bottle of Eagle Rare to share. Even in mourning, the BBN is the best.
GBB chant count: I lost track
I didn’t have time to really tour South Carolina’s campus, but from what I could tell of the part near the arena, it’s pretty bland, which is more of a reflection of Columbia itself. Columbia is the state capital of South Carolina, and in turn, kind of reminds me of Frankfort in that parts of it are essentially barren during the weekends. My mother and I hiked halfway across downtown to eat lunch at Zoe’s, only to find it closed on weekends. You can tell the city’s putting a lot of money back into downtown, particularly the “Vista” area, but after touring gems like Oxford, Athens, and even Tuscaloosa, I wasn’t impressed. In fact, the most impressive thing in the whole city was the Confederate printing plant that had been redeveloped into a Publix and townhomes. I’m not lying, my mother made me take at least three pictures of it.
Overall atmosphere: 3.5
Colonial Life Arena is a very nice arena in an okay Southern city. For South Carolina fans, this was an unexpected and awesome experience, but given their indifference to basketball, they’ve probably already forgotten about it. Shout out to Cantina 76 for the awesome taco salad and the Hilton hotel bar for a big glass of red wine to drown my sorrows in. The best thing about Columbia may have been the weather–65 degrees and sunny. If you stared at the palmetto fronds just right, it was like being at the beach…until you realized you were standing in a parking lot.
Total score: 77.5
Auburn Arena: 84/100
Vanderbilt’s Memorial Gymnasium: 71.5/100
Alabama’s Coleman Coliseum: 76.75/100
Ole Miss’ Tad Smith Coliseum: 68.5/100