A guide to the arenas hosting the first weekend of the NCAA tournament
There’s something almost comforting about the nearly barren NCAA hardwood floor used during March Madness. With all the character-heavy floors that fill college basketball arenas these days, having a simple NCAA logo at center court, the name of the host city on one baseline, the venue name on the other and the famed phrase “Road to the Final Four” on every apron, reminds us of the unity in goals for each team playing in the tournament.
And while the floors may provide monotonous unification, each of the eight arenas hosting the second and third rounds of the tournament have their own personality. Let’s run through what we’ll see Thursday through Sunday:
Jacksonville Veterans Memorial Arena
If you like your arena boasting Florida stone architecture on the front and comfortably sized without getting overgrown on the interior, then quite possibly the roughly 14,000-seat Jacksonville Veterans Memorial Arena will fit your March Madness requirements.
Opened in 2003 in Jacksonville’s sports district, the venue was designed by architect Populous specifically to house concerts. But that hasn’t stopped sports from taking over. The Vet is the home site to a hockey team, Jacksonville’s ABA basketball team and the Jacksonville University basketball team.
The smallest of the eight venues hosting second- and third-round contests, with 1,000 club seats and 32 suites, the medium-sized arena has still played host to March Madness twice prior, even if the acoustics were designed to house the likes of Elton John (the arena’s first concert).
KFC Yum! Center
The University of Louisville freed itself from Freedom Hall when it moved into one of the largest homes for college basketball in the nation in 2010. The then brand-new KFC Yum! Center—expect some Yum! brand concessions aplenty—holds just over 22,000 for basketball in its downtown Louisville location on the banks of the Ohio River.
The glass-heavy Populous-designed arena is said to take its design inspiration from the area’s bourbon distillery heritage, complete with ample lounges within the building. The roof waves toward the river, but the entire building squares off with its glass walls toward downtown and the plaza area it faces. Inside, the building’s size works as an advantage in the amenity-filled arena—complete with modern video displays—set to play host to second- and third-round NCAA basketball.
Consol Energy Center
A glass wall spanning more than 420 feet along Washington Place gives Consol Energy Center a distinct visual mark in Pittsburgh. Paired with brick and metal, the Populous-designed venue that opened in 2010 includes a “glazed circulation spine” to boast plenty of character on this multi-material exterior.
Inside, Consol generally plays host to the NHL’s Pittsburgh Penguins, but will open up over 19,000 seats for March Madness and offer up a view of downtown Pittsburgh’s skyline. Modern amenities inside Consol Energy Center include a public bar and food court with a view of the basketball floor, 360-degree LED rings encircling the seating bowl and some of the widest seats in U.S. arenas at up to 24 inches wide.
For any Portland native, it will always remain tough to call what is known since 2013 as the Moda Center any other name than what the arena was dubbed when opened in 1995: the Rose Garden. With the Rose City keen on its flower, this arena has a distinct aesthetic to match what was for so long a clever name.
The exterior, while mostly made of concrete and glass, offers up some interest with a 210,000 square foot steel roof that angularly shoots up and over the home of the NBA’s Portland Trailblazers. Designed by Ellerbe Becket (now part of AECOM), the venue was the brainchild of Blazers owner Paul Allen and sits next to Portland’s older Veterans Memorial Coliseum in the Rose Quarter across the Willamette River from downtown.
Inside the 19,000-plus-seat venue a special mix of panels suspended above the floor serves as an “acoustical cloud” to help send noise back toward the court during basketball games.
Time Warner Cable Arena
Charlotte, North Carolina
Time Warner Cable Arena says Charlotte in as many ways as possible. The crescent “C” shape of the arena begins at the entry lobby and sweeps around the seating bowl at the home of the NBA’s Charlotte Hornets. On the outside, brick and steel dominate the design of a venue in the heart of the city, while glass allows for transparency at the lower levels.
Inside, the Ellerbe Becket-designed (now part of AECOM) venue boasts local art and plenty of visual nods to Charlotte in the walkways, terraces and exposed staircases. For those sitting in the roughly 20,000 seats available for a college basketball game, fans can experience the largest scoreboard in any indoor entertainment venue in the country with the largest video screen used in the NBA. The LED technology is built into the 38-foot by 36-foot scoreboard with four 16-foot by 28-foot video screens all weighing 80,000 pounds. Two additional ribbon boards fill the seating bowl.
With a glass-enclosed roof that peaks over the brick façade of Nationwide Arena about a mile north of Ohio’s capital building and a 135-foot-tall light tower that illuminates the downtown Columbus skyline when the arena is in use, Nationwide Arena anchors the city’s arena district.
With hockey the main focus as the home venue for the NHL’s Columbus Blue Jackets, Nationwide Arena is one of only two NHL arenas with an on-site practice facility (and second rink) built into the arena. For basketball, though, Nationwide Arena should open up about 19,500 seats within a building complete with 1.3 million exterior bricks, 9,400 tons of steel and 60,000 square feet of exterior glass.
On what was the former parking lot of the Ohio Penitentiary, the 70-foot glass-enclosed atrium gives the 360 Architecture-designed (now HOK) Nationwide Arena a less prison-style look than the site’s history since opening the arena in 2000.
CenturyLink Center Omaha
One of the first contiguous convention center-arena combinations in the country, Omaha’s largest arena opened in 2003 and has hosted Creighton basketball ever since, including NCAA tournament games in both 2008 and 2012.
The convention center-arena combination makes the building much larger than the 18,000 it holds to watch basketball—a six-story building can easily tuck inside. On the outside, expect plenty of glass and steel and even a “hat” feature on the roof for some aesthetic flair. Inside, the DLR Group-designed venue has concrete columns the help open the arena on one end to the rest of the building.
With plenty more than just basketball in Omaha, including hockey, volleyball and even swimming, another key annual event for an arena with seven locker rooms, five dressing rooms and 16 meeting rooms is the Warren Buffett-run Berkshire Hathaway shareholders meeting each May. That’s the big time.
Set in the shadow of Seattle’s famed Space Needle, KeyArena will serve as the oldest host venue for this year’s opening weekend of NCAA tournament play.
Opened in 1962 as part of that year’s World’s Fair site—and what is now known as Seattle Center—the north downtown location hosted the NBA’s Sonics until they skipped town after April 2008. Now the venue hosts basketball for the WNBA’s Storm and Seattle University, with a capacity of 17,000.
The original building—the only venue to have a NBA game called on account of rain when the roof leaked in January 1986—underwent a rebuild between 1994 and 1995, dropping the court more than 35 feet below street level to nestle in 3,000 more seats. During the renovation, four new main diagonal trusses joined the original steel to support that distinctive angular roofline designed by architect Paul A. Thiry in 1960s flair.
Tim Newcomb covers stadiums, design and gear for Sports Illustrated. Follow him on Twitter at @tdnewcomb.