From BB&T to UPMC: Ranking the #HLWBB arenas

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This past season, I had the privilege of traveling all over the Horizon League’s footprint to deliver what I hope was passable coverage of the Cleveland State women’s team, as the Vikings enjoyed another successful campaign under Chris Kielsmeier in 2021-22. I ultimately saw ten of the 12 women’s venues in the conference, with COVID outbreaks in two programs preventing me from completing the circuit.

Along the way, I was asked more than once (okay, I think it was twice) to rank the various gyms and arenas of the HLWBB world. After many (okay, again, two) attempts at deferring an answer and spurred on, in part, by similar lists that I consider awful, I decided to come clean with my opinion in a post.

Rather than present a straightforward 1 through 10 – because why make things simple and easy to read, nobody needs that – I decided to divide the home courts into the three distinct categories I observed during my travels and list them that way, with their overall ranking noted. I even popped in exactly three photos I took of each place, conveniently packaged in galleries for each category.

Finally, before we get started, I do want to emphasize that I sincerely liked, or at least found some redeeming value in, every arena I saw. I ranked them because you’d be pretty mad at me if I didn’t, but thankfully, there are no awful buildings in the league.

With that being said…

Bandboxes

2. Beeghly Center (Youngstown State)

The Beeghly Center isn’t the biggest or the newest or even the nicest, but there’s something that just feels right about the place. Four sides, 4,000-6,000 close-to-the-action seats, and (personal preference) a little worn in and comfortable without being broken. In some ways, it’s mid-major venue perfection.

Drawbacks exist of course, but most are insignificant to me. It’s annoyingly symmetrical, with a lobby on each end and very little to distinguish one side from the other, so it took me a few tries to, for example, remember which corner included the media room/film study theater or even the bathrooms. The lower level uses those retractable chairbacks where one person sitting down jolts the entire row, and as I’ve hinted, the place is probably not for you if you need things like giant LED boards and an on-site sushi chef to watch a basketball game. All in all, it’s a nondescript box where you go watch a great program up close. And it’s amazing.

It’s worth mentioning that – by a wide margin – YSU had the largest and most engaged crowd of the places I visited for women’s games, and attendance data over the years shows that I didn’t witness an anomaly. The Penguins’ pep band is also one of the top couple in the conference and they show up, even on New Year’s Day, while most draw a hard line through the breaks on the academic calendar. Loud fans, lots of them, and details that create a great college atmosphere will make any arena work.

3. Athletics Center O’rena (Oakland)

I think if you took a survey among people reading this post or following my Twitter account, the O’rena would probably end up as the conference favorite. In fact, when I mentioned I was visiting, I received several completely unsolicited tweets from people saying how much they loved the place. Some of them were even from people with last names other than Dudek.

There really is a ton to like about the building, hokey name and all. The main criticisms of the O’rena are typically its size and the color of its court, dubbed “The Blacktop” even though it’s actually very definitely dark brown. But the first one is a non-issue for me; it’s on the cozier side of conference arenas, sure, but I don’t think it constrains attendance in a meaningful way. Better too small than too big. And the second is simply a matter of pivoting the branding. Stop trying to make “Blacktop” happen, and embrace the fact that the color gives off a forest vibe (some also complain about the reflections off the dark surface, but that’s never bothered me). Grizzlies, even Golden ones, live in the forest, right?

It’s a warm, visually-interesting environment, it’s easy to navigate despite being located within a larger complex, and the intimacy is unsurpassed among conference venues shared with the men’s team.

6. UPMC Events Center (Robert Morris)

You might think I’m crazy for placing the UPMC Events Center this low, given that it just opened in 2019 and (to many) is the jewel of the Horizon League. And yeah, it is extremely nice, in the way that new arenas always are. It does a lot of things very well, including an extensive historical exhibit in the lower-level lobby that includes the program’s NEC championship trophies. The facilities are elite in most ways, including the hospitality area, media room, and video control station and, given that the arena is pretty much the first thing you see when climbing the hill through the main gate to RMU’s campus, it’s a fine ambassador for the university.

But there’s just something a bit too sterile about it to me. The lighting seems a bit too dark and dominated by the scoreboards at times, to the point where the court looks like it has puddles on it when watching a game on TV. UPMC has a futuristic-looking main entrance rotunda with heavy doses of steel and glass, but it reads more like a pro arena than a college one. Or a spaceship. Despite clocking in at 4,000 seats (the same number as the O’rena), a lot of the American flag-patterned chairbacks are actually pretty far from the court. And don’t get me started on how the Colonials hockey teams (which play in an undersized off-campus venue) were screwed over during the design and construction process.

Again, it’s an extremely nice building, but it just misses the mark in several small, but important, ways.


Oversized and Underpopulated

1. Calihan Hall (Detroit Mercy)

The home of the Detroit Mercy Titans is the Horizon League’s top entry to the list of college basketball’s iconic venues. It dates to 1952 and has seen plenty, from Dave DeBusschere to Dick Vitale’s Sweet 16 team to, more recently, Rashad Phillips, Ray McCallum, and Antoine Davis. It even briefly hosted the Detroit Pistons, along with the championship game of the 2017 WNIT. What I love about the building is that it’s been appropriately modernized, particularly through renovations during the 1990s, but it hasn’t lost its air of historical significance (as opposed to somewhere like the Indiana Farmers Coliseum, in my opinion). You can walk around the place and still get lost thinking about everything that’s happened under that roof, it’s an ideal balance between preservation and keeping up with the times.

Both UDM teams struggle for attendance right now, and the idea of any HL team, women’s or men’s, regularly filling 8,000 seats seems like a pipe dream in the modern era, but Calihan Hall has a very large and very steep upper level that creates a pit effect and a full building would undoubtedly be a elite atmosphere in the sport if packed with fans

5. Credit Union 1 Arena (UIC)

It’s a bit unfortunate that UIC is leaving the conference because other than its capacity (listed at 8,000 for basketball) at a school that’s pretty much an afterthought locally, the former UIC Pavilion is actually a very nice facility. I was stunned with how accessible the place was considering how close the entire campus is to The Loop, with the Sears… err Willis Tower dominating most outside views.

To be clear, my media accommodations at UIC were less than ideal – I was stuck deep in a corner at floor level behind the Flames bench and had to use my own wifi during the game. However the concessions, particularly my fresh boat of fries that rivaled anything your favorite fast food place can do (don’t take that for granted, a lot of places don’t have hot food available, especially during women’s games) made up for it. CU1 has great sightlines despite its size, a gigantic video board at one end hovering above a decent hospitality area and a reasonably-priced garage right next door, nullifying all of my worries about Chicago parking. If UIC’s move to the MVC next season generates some sort of spark in the market, it could be a true high-end venue.

7. Truist Arena (Northern Kentucky)

Completed in 2008 as Northern Kentucky ramped up towards Division I play, the building known as BB&T Arena until recently has a 9,400 basketball capacity, which is a bit shocking given the program’s place in the universe (at the time) as a highly-successful Division II program with big ambitions. How big? Put it this way: there’s not a single mid-major conference in the country that averages 9,400 fans per game on the men’s side of things. One high-major conference is a full two thousand short of that mark, the Pac-12. To be fair, Cincinnati, Xavier, and Dayton, the programs NKU likely has in its crosshairs, could easily fill that arena regularly. But is NKU going to hit their level anytime soon? Even with arguably the largest following in the Horizon League (again, for men’s basketball), that’s a pretty big ask.

Beyond the sheer scale of the place, Truist checks all of the boxes, though it doesn’t stand out in any one area other than perhaps its court design, which might have been my favorite in the conference… with the past tense required since said court was discarded during the name change process, though the new one is very nice as well. Its main entrance (still there, I assume) is one of the more memorable architectural highlights in the league, with a bridge from the main parking garage leading to a giant Norse logo frosted into a glass façade.

9. Wolstein Center (Cleveland State)

I’m not going to lie, there’s something reassuring about the fact that, when I take a pregame lap around the Wolstein Center’s concourse, it’s essentially the same lap I used to take as a kid at Cleveland Crunch games. But that’s sort of the problem, because when a 30-year-old arena has gone without significant upgrades during its life, cracks both small and large start to appear. That was never more evident than during one of the bigger nights in the Wo’s history, the Horizon League quarterfinal doubleheader on March 3rd, when the scoreboards embarrassingly crapped out during the men’s nightcap against Robert Morris. It’s never a good look for a building when an athletic department literally has to issue an apology statement for it.

That said, other than its ridiculous, now-curtained-off capacity – the product of hubris in the afterglow of CSU’s run to the men’s Sweet 16 in 1986 and the lack of a large downtown arena in the years prior to the construction of the place now known as Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse – there’s nothing particularly awful about the building, and the idea of it being a major venue facsimile at one time did leave it with some goodies that other places across the league lack. But there’s nothing particularly amazing about it either, and its size is a major liability both in terms of atmosphere and cost. Given that CSU has casually poked around the idea of replacing it several times in recent years, it seems that the university agrees.


Rec Center Stages

4. Hilliard Gates Sports Center (Purdue Fort Wayne)

It’s not necessarily going to be an opinion shared by many since I feel like most people base ratings like this on superficial things like how “big time” a place looks and feels, but other than rolling my ankle hard stepping off of a curb and it locking up on me right as I was set to drive home, I really enjoyed my visit to Fort Wayne and Gates. And I’m completely comfortable placing it in the upper tiers of the entire conference.

The reason for that? It’s surprisingly deep and versatile despite being a gym in the middle of a multi-purpose facility, and it offers amenities that the others in this category simply don’t (a dedicated media room with arguably the league’s best pizza, to name one thing and video boards, to name another). Its listed capacity, 2,300, is perfectly fine for HLWBB, and the Mastodons men’s team continues to play their lower-interest games at Gates as well. The stands on each side of the court elevate a bit higher than in a lot of similar gyms, teasing the possibility of a great home court advantage. Though the place is a bit of a maze if you’re doing anything there other than attending a game as a fan, once you figure it out, there’s really nothing missing. And if you time things well, you can even check out an indoor track meet roughly 100 feet away for a bit while waiting on the basketball game.

8. Klotsche Center (Milwaukee)

Despite the low ranking, there’s something I really like about The K, and after thinking about it for a while, I came up with this: it has an underground feel. There’s some signage outside to be fair, but beyond that, people going to a Milwaukee women’s game park in an adjacent garage and enter Milwaukee’s rec center. After weaving through the building for a while, pretty much to the opposite side of the place, there’s a branded but mostly unassuming set of doors leading to the basketball court.

Furthermore the “arena” (I’m not even sure which word to use in describing it) is essentially a gigantic room with an indoor track where they plopped a court and four sets of portable bleachers on top of it. The entire thing feels like it could’ve been assembled in a couple hours for some secret invitation-only game in a Milwaukee warehouse, then disassembled without a trace just as quickly. The amenities are minimal and by itself it’s probably not a situation that wins over a ton of recruits, but the vibe is fantastic.

It should be mentioned that the under construction OHOW Center next door – scheduled to open in the fall – will do a ton to enhance UWM’s facilities bonafides by adding a practice gym, a weight room, a video room, expanded sports medicine offerings, and a student-athlete lounge to the Panthers’ lair.

10. The Jungle (IUPUI)

There are good points to The Jungle, to be perfectly clear, although it’s essentially a high school gym: there are retractable seats on each side, some decoration to add as much atmosphere as possible, and… that’s pretty much it. For one thing, you get to watch one of mid-major basketball’s best programs in the same type of tight quarters that you may have watched Taylor, who sat in front of you in AP calculus, hoop it up in the day. That’s definitely not nothing, and hopefully IUPUI students and Indy locals understand what they have in their backyard because even with the extremely cozy setting, the place is generally not packed to the rafters.

For anything negative you might have to say about The Jungle, consider that the Jags men’s squad plays at the 6,800-seat Farmers Coliseum and drew 669 fans per game this season for the worst team in Division I. I know which reality I’d rather have.

If you’re into swimming and diving, you probably know the gigantic concrete edifice better as the Indiana University Natatorium, which sits right across the main hallway from The Jungle and is ironically one of the elite facilities of its kind in the country. It’s hosted the NCAA women’s championships nine times and the men eight times, along with numerous other events on the conference and national team levels.

Not Rated: Nutter Center (Wright State) and Kress Events Center (Green Bay). Not my fault you guys got COVID. See you next season.

1 COMMENT

  1. Awesome article! As an NKU fan and alum, your assessment of our facility was more than fair. It was built this large to also serve as an events center. I’m not sure we ever planned to fill it with 9,000 fans. But that would be nice!

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