Thursday, November 22, 2007

After $20M upgrade, Tennessee's old basketball arena feels nearly new

Black is the new orange at Tennessee.

After a $20 million roof-to-floor renovation of Thompson-Boling Arena, it's the replacement of the trademark plastic orange seats with sharper-looking black ones that has people talking.

It was the first thing former Connecticut basketball player Diana Taurasi noticed when she returned with the U.S. women's national team to play the Lady Vols earlier this month.

"We actually miss the orange seats, believe it or not. If you find something that's annoying, as a home team, I think you'd want that to stick," she said.

Those were Pat Summitt's sentiments when the Tennessee athletic department announced it was dumping the dated orange seats (think fast-food restaurant) for a more sophisticated look. The coach of the national champ Lady Vols wanted to stick with the traditional look, but she's changed her mind now that she's seen the new decor.

"I went in there and just sat in the chairs and looked around. I was like a little kid. I was just in awe," Summitt said. "I think we'll have the greatest college basketball arena top to bottom in the country."

Tennessee athletic officials commissioned a complete overhaul of Thompson-Boling for its 20th anniversary. Besides the new chairs, the facility now features 32 new luxury suites, upgraded box seats and a $3 million state-of-the-art scoreboard with orange Tennessee signs.

Less obvious is the added load-bearing capacity to the building's ceiling, the polished floors that now look more like granite than concrete and freshly painted trim — orange, of course.

"We've taken America's largest on-campus facility, and we've made it into America's No. 1 basketball venue," men's coach Bruce Pearl said. "It's absolutely off the charts."

Plans were in the works to update the arena before Pearl was hired, but those ideas came to life faster thanks in part to the renewed success of the men's basketball program. It's only fitting that the men's team has sold out their season tickets for the first time in school history.

"You put 21,500 in here, and it will be electric," men's athletic director Mike Hamilton said. "This shows a firm commitment to basketball for years to come."

On top of that, workers are putting finishing touches on a $16 million brand new basketball practice facility, Pratt Pavilion. The practice building houses two full-length courts — one for the men's team and one for the women — locker rooms, film and training rooms and a spot to host recruits that overlooks the Tennessee River.

The combined $36 million price tag was footed by private donors and sales of the new luxury suites, even though the changes are for public benefit.

Players previously split practice and training between Thompson-Boling Arena and the campus' aging field house, Stokely Athletic Center. Now all non-game activities can take place in Pratt Pavilion, freeing up the arena for other moneymaking ventures like concerts, tractor pulls and the circus.

The additional load-bearing capacity in the ceiling should help bring in larger acts than before, like Cirque du Soleil and Tim McGraw and Faith Hill's show. Both acts considered traveling to Knoxville before but passed when they realized the arena was not adequate for their extravagant sets.

Extra revenue from such shows will go to pay Thompson-Boling's annual operating debt, which has averaged between $1 million and $1.5 million and is paid by the Tennessee athletic department.

"One of the things we're most proud about is that we've taken a 20-year-old building that has great bones, and we have a brand-new facility essentially," said John Currie, senior associate athletic director for external operations.

Even Tennessee basketball will be getting extra dazzle with the new scoreboard, which is so bright that operators only turn it up to about 50 percent of its capacity. With multiple displays, game play and replays can be shown at the same time as real-time game stats, advertisements and orange and white graphics.

Clunky guard rails and walls, which might have blocked the view for the smallest patrons of Tennessee basketball, have been replaced with clear, shatter-resistant glass.

Adding the luxury suites and loge section dropped the overall capacity of Thompson-Boling from 24,535 to about 21,000 but gave the cavernous arena a more intimate feel. Bleachers from the top rows in the upper deck have been replaced with regular seats.

Taurasi, who made regular trips to Thompson-Boling with UConn between 2000 and 2004, said the overall effect is striking enough that it might bring something besides the circus to town.

"It looks like an NBA arena," she said. "I don't see why Knoxville wouldn't be the next franchise of the WNBA."

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