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Top Mascots

Posted by Sean Rowland on May 5, 2015

The Original Moose, mascot of the Rochester Americans of the AHL (image from FrontierField.org)

The Original Moose, mascot of the Rochester Amerks of the AHL (image from FrontierField.org)

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Ah the mascot. A staple in the sports stadium scene as this costumed character is in charge of bringing fun to the crowd. While they cater to kids, a truly great mascot is one that can entertain both child and adult. Normally when I am out visiting a new sports facility, I hardly notice the mascot roaming around, so if they are able to make a good impression, it is noteworthy. Below are the top mascots that I’ve seen in the over 150 stadiums visited so far.

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1) The MooseRochester Americans (AHL)
Full disclosure on this one as I grew up in Rochester and have probably been to 50 Amerks games. With that being said, I still think The Moose is as good as it gets. The costume is “classic mascot” with the teddy bear like body and stuffed animal face that kids just eat up, while the antics are loved by adults that still are a kid at heart. My favorite move is when The Moose would go to the side board near the net and he would put on the glass a stick-on toy. There was this button he would be holding where the toy (designed as a boy) would pull down his pants and moon the other side. Loved watching him do that as the opposing goalie took a break and wandered towards the glass.

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2) SluggoEugene Emeralds (Northwest League)
Sluggo is downright for adults. His mischievous antics are well-known throughout the circuit and I was first introduced by watching him throw water balloons into the opposing team’s dugout. Think about that for a second. I laughed more than a few times throughout the game and could not believe some of the stuff it got away with.

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3) Otto the OrangeSyracuse Orange (NCAA)
He may be a little over-hyped thanks to ESPN’s love of Syracuse, but he is adorable! Who can result a puffy orange ball with a happy face? He is not only fun to look at, but you’ve also got to love his moves that fit the character so well like the disco thing he likes doing with his hands and those somersaults where he tucks his feet in.

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4) Philly PhanaticPhiladelphia Phillies (MLB)
Here is a classic that still shines. The Phanatic has provided nearly 40 years of phun at Phillies games and his shtick never gets old. Quite a bit of time has passed since the Lasorda/Phanatic dust up in 1988, yet after watching it again, it’s almost impossible not to laugh out loud. It’s good to see some people have lightened up years later.

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5) The HawkSt. Joseph’s Hawks (NCAA)
The Hawk Never Dies. More of an exhibitionist than entertainer, The Hawk spends the entire game flapping his wings, not once stopping. You can’t help checking in on it during stoppages of play just to see if those wings are still going. And they are.

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Scranton…(What!)…The Electric City

Posted by Sean Rowland on April 27, 2015

PNC Field Exterior

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One of my favorite all-time sitcoms is The Office and whenever I drive by
Scranton, I can’t help but think of countless references. Instead of driving by it on I-81, this time I spent a day in the Electric City before heading to Moosic for a RailRiders baseball game at PNC Field. A day after snowflakes were in the air, it was still chilly, but at least the sun was out. My day started by driving downtown on the pothole-infested Lackawanna Ave and into the Steamtown National Historic Site. While Northeast PA is known for it’s former coal-mining days, the Lackawanna Valley also was the center of the Steam-powered locomotive area. The U.S. National Park system is fantastic and this site is no exception as they turned the former railyard of the DL&W into an indoor and outdoor museum. I spent nearly four hours here as there is a lot to absorb and the Roundhouse is especially cool to take in. For lunch, a few minutes away is Coney Island Lunch and in I went for a famous “Texas Weiner“, a Scranton staple consisting of meat sauce and onions on a hot dog with a National Bakery roll. Cheap and good, it made for a nice stop. When I went to use a coupon on my phone, you can imagine my surprise that it was for the “Other Coney Island”. I was eating in Coney Island of Scranton and wouldn’t you know, these two places are a couple blocks away and have been at Weiner War for decades.

After lunch, I walked to the Iron Furnaces, stone remains approaching 200 years old that were used to produce iron. It was then back to the Steamtown site, where across the parking lot is the Electric City Trolley Museum. This explains the city’s nickname as the first trains that used electricity to move started here. While not as well-done or expansive as Steamtown, this museum was worth an hour, of which I truly enjoyed learning about the development of inter-city transportation with these trolleys. Of note to those coming to see RailRiders baseball, the museum offers Sunday trolley trips to the ballpark. $20 includes a ticket and a 10 mile round trip ride on the 19th century trolley. Very cool. Since it was Saturday, I went back to the car and drove 10 minutes to Moosic for the game.

I was last here in 2006 to watch a playoff game involving my hometown Rochester Red Wings. Before planning this visit, it took me awhile to figure out how to quantify this stadium. Is it renovated or do I consider it “new”? With Madison Square Garden, I decided it was a renovation because while the inside was gutted, the outside was the same, so was the roof, the name and the team, while the history of the building was still recognized. Here at PNC Field, everything is new. Plus, the team spent an entire season on the road while they essentially re-built a stadium, so I’m considering this a brand new park. It’s been a topsy-turvy 10 years as SWB has gone from Red Barons to Yankees to RailRiders. While I like the RailRider branding, the ballpark screams Yankees thanks to the outside name sign, interior blue seats and boring light color. This isn’t a fault of designers as the name was choosen in the middle of ballpark construction, but I feel there is so much missed opportunity here to go with that rail theme (see Altoona on how to get that right). And what’s the deal with the porcupine riding the rails on the logo? The whitewash of the team’s history is also disappointing as you won’t find any piece about SWB’s past, save for a small retired number on the wall. 

None of that is to say this is a bad ballpark because it is indeed modern, clean and decent. The entrance opening is inviting with a band welcoming fans and message boards including game information if one is late. The concourse wraps around the park and the setting at the base of a huge incline is unique. As mentioned, it’s amazing that this site used to be Lackawanna County Stadium as PNC Field is totally different. The upper-deck has been replaced by a suite/club level and now wrapping around the field from each foul pole is a single set of seats. These have a decent pitch for sightlines. As for the game…yikes. Scranton/Wilkes-Barre forgot to wake up as their astounding 5 errors basically handed Pawtucket the victory. Typifying the contest was a key play in the 6th inning, where the RailRiders were down 2-1 and had a runner at third. Eddy Rodriguez fell asleep and got picked off, thus ending the threat and the inning. This was the first game of a doubleheader, so they just played seven and the PawSox won 4-1. It only took 1:41 to play, which is awesome! In fact, the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre Penguins were playing Syracuse in Game 2 of their AHL Playoff Quarterfinal just 15 minutes away at the Mohegan Sun Arena. The short contest here would have been perfect for those looking for a two-sport day, something fellow road tripper Sean MacDonald loves (I have to try and meet up with him for the first time at one of these games). Alas, it wasn’t in the cards for me as I had to head home. Despite the chill in the air, it was a great day in Scranton and I’m now back on the board of seeing each of the ballparks in the IL North. Look for the detailed review (on the right) to come this week, along with a Stadium Journey write-up in May.

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Apr 2015 Stadium of the Month – MTS Centre

Posted by Sean Rowland on April 19, 2015

MTS_Centre

MTS Centre, home to the Winnipeg Jets (image from Stadium Journey)

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Normally, I reserve this space for lesser-known facilities, but I just could not help myself in anticipation for what is to come Monday Night. After four years in the NHL, the Winnipeg Jets will host their first playoff game in the MTS Centre. Get ready for an insane, vocal building and while I know the fans will bring it, I’m curious if this new-ish building will be able to reach the decibel levels that are heard in older facilities like Edmonton and Long Island (both sadly departing).

The fact that Winnipeg is able to support a professional franchise is remarkable and everything is done right here. Every single seat is filled and support within the city and the corporate world completes the formula needed for a small city to make it. As for the arena experience, it makes a pilgrimage to typically freezing Winnipeg worth it. Sitting downtown, the Shed District is growing and more pre/post-game establishments are providing fans enough fill to spend a good chunk of time in a city area that previously struggled. The building is beautiful and it amazingly is able to create a small, barn feel while being modern and new at the same time. With just over 15,000 seats, it goes to show that you do not need a massive space to be successful and the final result of this incredible arena makes both the general fan and high-end one well off.

As great as the building is, the fans are better. As an already terrific market, the loss of the Jets for 15 years just grew this place into an even more hockey mad city. It is almost impossible to find a person leave their seat during play and the unison of the “Let’s Go Jets” chants are perfect. They are creative too…I saw a game on TV here a few years ago where they chanted “Silver Medal” at Buffalo’s Ryan Miller. That hurt me as an American and Sabres fans, but a part of me loved that chant. Now, the inventors of the White-Out, will get to show the hockey world what a real playoff atmosphere is like.

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April Stadium List Updates

Posted by Sean Rowland on April 14, 2015

Say goodbye to the lack of electronics in Wrigley Field's Outfield

Say goodbye to the lack of electronics in Wrigley Field’s Outfield

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After a lonnnggg winter in the Northeast, even those not fans of baseball become happy at the first crack of the bat as that means Spring and warmer weather. This year, there are no new Major League ballparks, but there are a few notable goings-on. The sacrilegious demolition of Wrigley Field continues as being a billionaire just isn’t enough for Tom Ricketts as he finds more revenue streams from the Cubs. That means ad boards! No longer will Wrigley be a complete step back in time as the place gets a makeover, including a video scoreboard. Of course, they’re making a mess out of the whole thing as the Bleachers are in shambles. Even the Cubs website is pathetic in their display of the whole thing. Restore means to “Bring Back”. Wrigley wasn’t exactly dead. Meanwhile, to someone who knows how to properly treat an old ballpark, Janet Marie Smith continues her work on Dodger Stadium and their gradual improvements seem to be for the good. Lastly, Cleveland copied the success seen at Coors Field last year by creating a social gathering bar-type section called The Corner. Expect more trends like this around the league as the sport tries to stay “hip” with the younger crowd and advertise the game as a hang-out. This new section at Progressive Field reduced capacity by about 6,000.

In the minor-leagues, Nashville opens First Tennessee Park, at the site of the old Sulpher Dell ballpark. Not many tears were shed at the moving out of the 36-year old, vanilla Greer Stadium. The only signature piece fans wanted to see make the move was the guitar-shaped scoreboard, which is very cool. It will be interesting to see if this ballpark spurs other development in this downtown section of Nashville. Also in the PCL, the Oklahoma City franchise has been renamed the Dodgers. Boooo to that, I hate when a minor-league team loses it’s identity and character. Hope it’s not a trend as the same thing happened to South Bend.

Down in the South, the Huntsville franchise moves to Biloxi, where the Shuckers will take the field as another clever Brandoise designed team. The Shuckers will have to start play their first few months on the road and still in Huntsville, as MGM Park will not be ready until (hopefully) early June. Not good planning by all involved as the city is on the hook for nearly a $1 million to expedite the process and $10,000 for every missed home game. Probably should have thought that through better. As for Joe Davis Stadium back in Huntsville, it unfortunately is slated to be demolished. In a piece of great news, the Brevard County Manatees once again will partake in the Jackie Robinson Celebration Game. This contest is held at Holman Stadium in Vero Beach (former Dodgertown) and with it becoming an annual event, we see that historic venue back on The List.

In soccer, the lower divisions have resumed play this month and while the NASL sees little change (just the Jacksonville Armada join, making their home in the Baseball Grounds), big moves have been made in the third tier USL. I wrote about this last month and how much I hate it as the USL is evolving into a sort of MLS Reserve League. After LA Galaxy II played last year, there are now 8 MLS franchises that own an USL team playing in the same city. Most of these have some sort of symbol for “2” after their name, while only Salt Lake went with a different name (Real Monarchs, you know for all of that Spanish Royalty in Utah). Four of them play in MLS stadiums while the other four use a smaller facility within the region, none of which make The List. These are UBC Thunderbird Stadium (Whitecaps), Merlo Field (Timbers), Starfire Sports Stadium in Tukwila (Sounders) and the Ontario Soccer Centre in Vaughn (Toronto FC). Why I hate this trend is the ugly mix we now have between a reserve league with teams that have way different goals than the other independently run teams. Just make a stinking Division 4 and call it MLS Reserves.

The USL did expand in other ways too as there are five new teams in cities that did not have professional soccer. Again, none of these independently make it on to The List and two of them are using baseball parks (Louisville and Tulsa). The Austin Aztex will set up shop in House Park, a downtown stadium that has been the center of High School Football for decades. It is in a cool spot for the trendy/hipster crowd that likely will take to soccer well. Colorado Springs will play in a refurbished Sand Creek Stadium, right across from Security Service Field. Lastly, St. Louis may correctly be thought of as a baseball town, but there is a deep history and passion for soccer (see the Women’s friendly last week). It’s good to see a team there and they will use Soccer Park in Fenton.
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New MSG – Not a fan, but still special

Posted by Sean Rowland on April 7, 2015

MSG_Rangers

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I’m back on the stadium visit scene after a break with the birth of our first daughter, Shayla. It’s a wonderful, exhausting, yet amazing experience. She’s got her Sabres onesie all layed out for draft lottery day. Last night, I went to the Rangers game for a return to Madison Square Garden, a place that I wanted to come back to and see the complete makeover it received from 2011-2013. My first visit five years ago was incredible and despite the flaws, I was blown away by the atmosphere and the unique aura of being in the World’s Most Famous Arena. Getting into a Rangers game always was a pricey venture, but with their recent Stanley Cup Final run and the success of the team, tickets are downright outrageous now. In 2010, I spent $55 for a 400-level seat near the first row on StubHub. Now, finding a single crappy seat for less than $130 on reseller sites is a challenge. I resorted to a weeknight game and was able to find a seat in section 213 for $100. This was an experience I had to cherish as I won’t be venturing back with these prices.

This was the first time I used my go-to route for getting into NYC during a weekday and it worked just as well as it does on weekends. I left my house around 3:15 PM, got to Secaucus with no traffic, hopped on the train and was in the basement of MSG (Penn Station) at 5:00 PM. Plenty of time for me to head outside and take some pictures of the arena. Being a transplant to the region, no matter how often I go, each time I step out onto the streets of Midtown Manhattan, I get this feeling of awe, excitement and amazement that is hard to describe. I passed security into the “Chase Square” lobby to wait entry. The square is certainly a fresher section, but it could use more displays…especially because they won’t let you in until an hour before puck drop (I was hoping for a little extra time). That means a lot of fans milling around on their cell phones. The Chase Bank sponsorship of this “Square” is prominent throughout the building as it is Chase everything. MSG seems to shamelessly squeeze every little dollar out of corporate sponsoring of stuff.

Inside, there is more room in the two-level concourses and the displays throughout are excellent. Plenty of course has happened in the history of this building and I enjoyed checking out each moment and display. Food is much better too, but $14.50 for a Corned Beef Sandwich! Holy Crap! Even though the space is still tight, the introduction of the Bridge really helped to disperse traffic in between periods (bathrooms though remain super cramped). Ah, the Bridge. This is the defining feature of the renovation…a skywalk that includes three rows of seats way above the playing surface, allowing for a unique birds-eye view. The concept is great and if you are sitting up here, the view is awesome. However, the execution of the whole thing sucks and I hate these bridges because for a majority of the upper sections (Row 10 and above in the 200s), the bridge blocks the view of the scoreboard and rest of the arena. Yes, they put very nice, adequate video screens on the back of the bridge, but still, you feel closed off and secluded from the rest of the building. I was not a fan of that segregated feel.. I’m also not a fan of the change in seating bowl as it is essentially an entirely new arena. Granted, while the original design had a gentle sloping bowl and not the best sightlines, it was remarkably unique in it’s circular layout and unobstructed view to the ice as three levels of seating were only separated by walkways. Of course these changes were all done for money as the remodel added a significant amount of suite/club sections at the end of the arena. For the common fan, the in-arena experience is worse off now, which is a shame for such an iconic building.

The atmosphere has suffered a bit too as I noticed on TV during playoff games, it was just slightly not as loud as before (down a notch or two on the volume/boisterous scale). That has nothing to do with the fans though as they are tremendous, with the exception of the rich elite that are entertaining clients sitting in the highly visible lower 100s. After Monday’s re-visit, I still think the fans as a whole are the best that I have seen so far (and I’ve been to Montreal, Toronto and Philly). Their knowledge of the game is excellent, along with their knack of knowing when to make noise and what to do. Not to mention the high-comedy that many true New Yorkers provide in the stands. I’ve never heard so many f-bombs at a sporting event in my life, but I’ve also never laughed so much to myself at the number of one-liners thrown around. It is still a very noisy building and near the top in league, just not to the extent it was pre-2011.

What a game I picked to experience that fandom. There’s only a few games left in the regular season and the Rangers are trying to get the most points in the NHL and earn the Presidents Trophy. Columbus was the opponent and before the game, Cam Talbot received the Steven McDonald Award, a prestigious honor in the organization and a very special ceremony. The game was entertaining and close as Columbus came in on a hot streak. Henrik (love that chant) kept the game at 2-2 as he was his usual stellar self, until midway thru the third when ex-Ranger Brandon Dubinsky gave the Jackets the lead. The Rangers pressured late and with the goalie pulled, Derek Stepan tied the game with 27.5 seconds left. An exciting overtime ensued and the Garden erupted as Stepan scored again with less than a minute left in the extra frame. Despite my feelings on the renovated building, walking out of Madison Square Garden in the middle of New York City after a crazy Rangers win is a remarkably special experience.  

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Mar 2015 Stadium of the Month – Tennis Center at Crandon Park

Posted by Sean Rowland on March 30, 2015

Crandon_Park

Tennis Center at Crandon Park (image from Stadium Journey)

 

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I have yet to visit a tennis stadium and while I have the luxury of the world’s largest just an hour and a half away, I’m thinking that I work my way up to it the next several years, in time for the renovations at the whole USTA Tennis Center to be completed. In the meantime, there’s good tennis during the summer to check out in Toronto, Montreal, DC, New Haven and the Cincy area…all within drivable distance. Obscured in the background of a jam-packed March sports scene, there is also high-quality tennis in the States this time of year as well. After starting at Indian Wells (a terrific facility in it’s own right), the ATP/WTA is now in the Miami area, where they spend the next week at the Tennis Center in Crandon Park, a venue well worth visiting.

Crandon Park is located on Key Biscayne, about 10 minutes southeast of downtown Miami. While it is a pain to get here because of the Causeway and it’s accompanying tolls/traffic, the park itself is home to gorgeous beaches. Other entertainment include the Miami Seaquarium and the Rusty Pelican, a restaurant with a spectacular view. There are ten competition courts in the complex and the primary Stadium Court seats 13,800. The configuration has a few little nooks and crannies, but the main takeaway is the lack of suites allow for excellent sightlines as seats are angled towards the court in an octagon shape. The daytime includes a great view of the city skyline from the south stands, but it also mean that you are sitting in an increasingly hot Florida sun. Evening sessions feature more comfortable weather and the vibe is also much better with energetic crowds. Really, spending the whole day at the tournament is the way to go as there is so much to take in and watching the world’s best in matches around the grounds is a rare opportunity. No worries about food as the Miami Open is known for amazing options in their Plaza. Lunch and dinner is a great break in between matches.

If you want to check out this tournament, you may want to go soon. Planned (and needed) renovations failed to go through in the always crazy world of Florida sports stadiums. There are rumors that if the tennis center is not upgraded, the tournament may leave the area, which would be a sad end to a tradition nearly 30 years old.

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MLS at 20

Posted by Sean Rowland on March 23, 2015

Yankee Stadium Exterior

Yankee Stadium…not exactly a soccer cathedral

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As the 20th season of MLS has begun, it is nothing but happy faces with media, league officials and fans touting the success of the league. Rightfully so as we have a come a long, long way from
this. With a new TV deal, cities vying by the dozens to join, big name players (and a few still in their primes), supporter clubs and soccer-specific stadiums, it is a rosy picture. And I’m glad as I am rooting hard for our domestic league to work. But there are some thorns on that rose as problems underlie the overall successful rise of the league. Since this is a stadium site, let’s talk about what is new this season…

In San Jose, the Earthquakes finally get their own facility as Avaya Stadium opens with a pristine design and sightlines. The huge open bar at the North End is a cool touch as well. Amazing to think how long the Quakes lasted at an antiquated college field before moving to these new digs. Orlando City joins MLS this season and they are on fire to start with 60,000+ for their opening game at the renovated Citrus Bowl. It’s not a one-time thing either as their second game got a strong figure too. The Lions move into a downtown stadium next season. Then we get to the thorny part of the league and their complete botch job of the other new franchise this season…New York City FC. Apparently, the league’s edict of having a nearly ready soccer facility only applies to smaller cities and where they are not getting huge financial opportunities. Plans for an NYCFC home have not gone well and their stuck in Yankee Stadium with nothing on the horizon. Secondly, Don Garber’s Bettman-like plan to insist that big markets have two teams is a joke. While the Red Bulls do well enough, they come nowhere near filling RBA for each game, yet the thought is that this area needs to have a “derby” and that the five boroughs will take to NYCFC because it is going to play in city limits (remember the Jets/Giants don’t exactly play in NYC). So instead of adding a city that is ready with a stadium and going to welcome it with open arms (eh-hem…Sacramento, San Antonio). We have a Man City farm club tearing up the diamond at Yankee Stadium. Along those same lines the huge mistake that was Chivas USA is gone, but instead of leaving a model franchise in LA Galaxy be and continue to grow their already solid fan base, the plan is to create another Los Angeles team in the place of Chivas.

This leads into another issue with MLS expanding into huge markets that have multiple sports teams (and of course money and TV eyeballs). While I know there are many passionate fans in these places, it often does not work as the sporting focus is on the other Big 4 sports. Take a look at Chicago, Dallas and Colorado (Denver), their MLS games do not draw well. Coming up the stream is expansion Atlanta and likely Minnesota, who are similar in terms of sports size. That’s not to say it can’t work (Philadelphia and Toronto have been successful), but the deck is stacked. Where the league’s biggest success stories have come, are in places where there is only one or two other professional teams: Portland, Kansas City, Seattle, Salt Lake and soon Orlando. That is why Sacramento and San Antonio would be perfect.

The discussion can go on and I’m sure the whole promotion/relegation argument will continue (it won’t work here), but the key to building perceived success are solid markets with filled stadiums. I say perceived as money is really the key to success. Where the league has come in 20 years is incredible and out of the 20 teams, 15 have their own SSS and 2 others make it work very well in a bigger football stadium (Seattle and Vancouver). If DC and New England can get their places built, NYC solve it’s mess, LA2 not arrive and the new expansion bids go to Sacramento, San Antonio and Indianapolis, then that would be amazing.

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March Stadium Updates

Posted by Sean Rowland on March 17, 2015

pershing

Goodbye to the Pershing Center in Lincoln (pictured above, image from KFOR1240.com)…but hello again to Tingley Coliseum in Albuquerque!

 

This month is about indoor football and the start of baseball, where we will start first…College Baseball began a month earlier and a couple new ballparks have opened, neither of which are on The List as they are under capacity. After years of delays and waiting, Coastal Carolina finally opens their 2,500-seat Springs Brooks Stadium (hard to say). The Chanticleers have a top program and the ballpark matches the direction they are headed. The other park is a product of the stupid conference re-alignment. With the generally weak baseball program of West Virginia joining the powerhouses in the Big XII, a ballpark to at least fit in the league was needed. The temporarily-named Monongalia County Ballpark will serve that purpose, but not just yet as this winter has delayed the opening. Out in Arizona, the Sun Devils followed their rivals’ footsteps as they join the University of Arizona in moving off-campus to a former spring training home. Arizona State leaves Packard Stadium to the briefly vacant Phoenix Municipal Stadium (Oakland moved their Spring Training back to Mesa and a renovated Hohokam Stadium). The move was a success in Tucson, not sure how it will pan out for the Sun Devils. Finally in the SEC, a big renovation to Sewell-Thomas Stadium means that Alabama will play all of their 2015 home games at the Hoover Met, which is still the host of the conference tournament. Georgia also made renovations to their ballpark, Foley Field.

In the world of indoor football, the United Indoor Football League folded, while two leagues merged as the CPIFL and LSFL created Champions Indoor Football. The fewer of these smaller 4-8 team leagues, the better. Not all teams made the move as a few moved to different leagues, while some ceased operations all together. One of those teams sadly was the Lincoln Haymakers. Their home, the Pershing Center has been closed and the future is in doubt for the smaller venue that now sits in the shadows of the gleaming Pinnacle Bank Arena. It’s a sad demise for the venue. On the opposite end of the spectrum, the debut of the Duke City Gladiators brings Albuquerque’s Tingley Coliseum back from the abyss. The venerable facility located on the New Mexico State Fairgrounds will be host to the Gladiators this season.

Going up to the top tier Arena Football League, Pittsburgh and San Antonio folded, while in a surprise move, the Iowa Barnstormers dropped down to the IFL. For decades, the Barnstormers have been a mainstay in the Arena League and they draw quite well in Des Moines, so this move caught me off guard. They will continue to play in Wells Fargo Arena. Meanwhile, Vegas gets a team that will play in the Thomas & Mack Center. In the IFL, to go along with the Iowa move, the Wichita Falls Nighthawks replace the Texas Calvary and in Big Sky Country, the RimRock Arena becomes home to a permanent tenant again as Billings takes the place of the Wyoming franchise that played in Casper. The Casper Event Center will remain on The List as it hosts the state basketball tournament each year. Down to the lower leagues, Georgia (Rome) and Harrisburg are out of the PIFL, while Erie is in. Meanwhile, the AIF and X-League had too many changes for me to muster the energy to discuss.

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Troubling Trend in Minor League Sports

Posted by Sean Rowland on March 10, 2015

dcu1

Say Goodbye to Worcester’s DCU Center as a hockey home next season. The Sharks have moved their affiliate to the same building as their NHL team

 

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On March 7th, a report began circulating that the Winnipeg Jets want to move their AHL affiliate from St. John’s to Winnipeg, where they would share the MTS Centre with the Jets. A month earlier, the AHL announced the creation of a California Division, with Bakersfield, Ontario, San Diego and Stockton all essentially moving up a level from the ECHL. The fifth franchise, however, would be in San Jose. Unlike, Toronto and Chicago, there is only one arena in San Jose and the baby Sharks would also play in the HP Pavilion. While the moving of Eastern teams out west is sad, what is most troubling is the loss of at least one and possibly two minor-league teams as the parent franchise takes control of everything.

I may be more sentimental than others when it comes to minor-league sports, but taking away the teams from these cities hurts on a multitude of levels, even if most games involve fans looking for a fun, cheap night out as opposed to a passioned following of the team (though they are out there). Of course, this affects me selfishly on the stadium side of things, as who would rather see the JV team with the same logo, colors and building vs seeing a team that has an identity with a separate city. This hurts the little guy too as in San Jose they will now have ~80 hockey events a year in their arena, while out in Worcester (where the ECHL is not coming next season), there will be 40 fewer nights where thousands of people come downtown and spend time either before or after the game, enjoying the city and eating/drinking at local places. OK, bad example as I’ve been to the DCU Center in Worcester and the only place benefiting is the Pizzeria Uno across the street. But you get my point.

This is not just a hockey thing either. In a far worse situation, the USL (third tier of American/Canadian Soccer) is seeing an influx of MLS teams set up Reserve Squads. These generic teams now include: LA Galaxy II, New York Red Bulls II, Whitecaps FC 2, Seattle Sounders FC 2, Portland Timbers 2, Toronto FC II, Real Monarchs and FC Montreal. Blah!!! And several will play in the same home of the MLS team. Yes, this certainly has advantages for each franchise as they can closely monitor players and have an easier time with call-ups, but the smaller cities in this country will be missing out on potential professional soccer as the sport is booming (to be fair, this was a big expansion, as only one team (Dayton) was lost this coming season).

Though I’m looking at this from a stadium traveler perspective and seeing the amount of lost opportunities to visit smaller cities and more charming facilities, there are negatives mainly that the rich get richer. I’m not going crazy yet as the trend is not drastic (out of both sports, only Worcester loses out as St John’s would likely get Hamilton’s team and then Hamilton would go to the CHL), however, the moves and where teams are going is concerning. Maybe this side of the topic would get more media attention if it happened in baseball, where stadium travel is more prevalent and there is a deeper connection to local baseball teams. Imagine the uproar if the Tampa Bay Rays said “Sorry Durham, we want our players closer, they are going to play all afternoon games in the Trop and you are left with an empty ballpark”.

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Conference Championship Destinations

Posted by Sean Rowland on March 3, 2015

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Honda Center in Anaheim, CA…home to the Big West Basketball Tournament (photo from Jason Bartel at Stadium Journey)

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The calendar has turned to the third month of the year and you know what that means…March Madness! Yes, even though I’ve been down on the sport of college basketball, I can not help myself from getting excited as the postseason draws near. While mainstream media and the general population focus attention on the Big Tournament, the conference gatherings are just as special. The culmination of a frenetic regular season all boils down to a neat, tidy bracket to determine a champion (well, save for leagues like the Horizon and MAC with their step-ladder approach). Conference Tournaments feature competitive games, amazing moments and annual fan gatherings at neutral-site destinations. I’ve written before where I think each league should host their ultimate finale, but for this post I want to focus on which ones are the best place to spend a 3-4 days as a bi-partisan fan and enjoy the entire event. As always, I like to focus on the leagues that get less attention, so this list will stay clear of the Power Five:

 

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1)  Las Vegas, NV  –  Orleans Arena (WCC) and Thomas & Mack Center (MWC)  

The first choice is obvious…Vegas Baby! As the ultimate sports travel destination, Sin City hosts a remarkable four conference tournaments (Pac-12 and WAC are the others). Despite the seeming contradictory decision of the West Coast Conference to have their all religious-following members gather in a place that isn’t exactly conducive to behaving by Catholic/Mormon standards, the move made here six years ago has been a resounding success. And they moved to a traditional bracket! The WCC plays a little off the Strip in the Orleans Hotel & Casino. I stayed here back in 2009 and loved it as the facility had everything you want in a Vegas hotel, plus it is quieter and the heart of the city is only a few minutes drive away. Meanwhile, across town at the Thomas & Mack Center, the Mountain West Conference gathers a week later for their shindig. While UNLV is the host, the obvious lure of the bright lights brings tons of fans in to the pro-style arena which negates a significant advantage. Check out the mass of fans New Mexico had with them for the 2013 final against the Rebels.

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2)  St. Louis  –  Scottrade Center (Missouri Valley Conference)

Nowhere else in college basketball will you find such a gathering of alumni and fans convening for the annual event in St. Louis. That means the bars in Laclede’s Landing are quite colorful from the yellow of Wichita State to the Bradley/Illinois State red and the Northern Iowa/Evansville purple. This is the rare “mid-major” event capable of filling an entire large arena and the central location of St. Louis within the league’s footprint makes them an ideal host. Scottrade Center being downtown and close to attractions along with post-game establishments already set the stage for a great arena trip. However, it is the people and tight-knit community of these Midwestern schools where the atmosphere sets it apart.

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3)  Anaheim, CA  –  Honda Center (Big West Conference)

The California Bus League (aka Big West) culminates it’s season in Anaheim and SoCal is a great destination to go along with a neat, three-day Thursday-Saturday Tournament. My only issue is they moved venues a few years ago to the way-too-big Honda Center. With crowds not filling even half the place, their former home at the Anaheim Convention Center was a much more appropriate venue. Plus the location there is perfect as right across the street is DisneyLand. Regardless, the Honda Center is still only 5 minutes away down Katella Ave and the amenities at the big arena are better.

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4)  Cleveland, OH  –  Quicken Loans Arena (Mid-American Conference)

So why Cleveland in Winter…MACtion! This is always a hotly contested event and the downtown area has shed the whole “Mistake-by-the-Lake” moniker. Not far from the arena is the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, with the Great Lakes Science Center right next door. Now, if they would just do something about that horrible arena name and go back to their original title of “Gund Arena”.

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5)  Asheville, NC  –  U.S. Cellular Center (Southern Conference)

One of the Nation’s oldest conferences came back to a neutral site in Asheville to resounding success and this peaceful, eclectic getaway near the Smoky Mountains is a terrific place to visit. The U.S. Cellular Center is in the historic downtown, notable for it’s stunning architecture and array of small local places to eat. Make sure to check out the massive Biltmore Estate while in town too. The arena that hosts the SoCon action may have a new name, but it is certainly old school as the Civic Center box design screams 1970s, but features great sight-lines from the small upper section of seating.

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