Sunday, February 7, 2016

New Mexico Lobos 71 at San Diego State Aztecs 78 (OT, NCAA Basketball, Mountain West) - February 6, 2016


The next stop on my California trip was San Diego, home of the Gulls, another AHL transplant. They had a night game on this Saturday, which freed up the afternoon for some college hoops, with San Diego State hosting New Mexico in a battle of the top two squads in the Mountain West.



The Aztecs play out of Viejas Arena which is built atop the old Aztec Bowl, where the football team played until 1967. President Kennedy spoke at a commencement ceremony in June, 1963 and for that reason, the Aztec Bowl is on the National Register of Historic Places. The seating bowl is still visible  as you walk around the exterior of the building.



Viejas Arena is ostensibly named for the Viejas Band of Kumeyaay Indians, but it really is advertising for the casino that they operate. However, as the arena is on campus, no mention of gambling is allowed.



The venue is unusual in that the main concourse is outside the building as you can see above. This is where you can find specialty food items including a Flavors of East Africa stand that was very popular.



Inside there is a smaller concourse with a few concession stands selling more typical fare, such as hot dogs, popcorn, and cookies. There are small posters around here honouring past stars, such as Michael Cage, who enjoyed a lengthy NBA career and is now broadcasting with the OKC Thunder.



The seating bowl is very steep, so even from the very last row, you still feel like you are on top of the action. Note that there are six rows of benches with the rest of the seats being plastic chairs. Tickets for this game were $40 for chairbacks and $20 for benches, but the game was sold out, which surprised me as I did not realize the team was so popular.



Fortunately, I found someone with an extra ticket and paid $20 to get in. The ticket was for the student seating area, which is general admission and comprises the three sections behind the far net in the photo below. You can see that it is already filling up as students want the best seats. I thought I would be out of place as an old guy, but as it turns out, many non-students sit there, so my advice is to buy a $20 seat and sit in the student section.



I made my way down to the fourth row and took an aisle seat. That's the view below.



By game time, the place had filled up with over 12,000 fans who really put on a show themselves. They ignore the visiting team intros and chant and cheer for much of the game. The best chant is "I Believe That We Will Win!!!" which is first chanted by adding a word each time and then repeated several times. I think the crowd atmosphere really impacted the players as they put together one of the best college games I have seen.



The Aztecs were 10-0 in conference play while New Mexico was 7-2. San Diego State is coached by Steve Fisher, who was the Michigan bench boss for their 1989 tournament win as well as the Fab Five years. The first half was excellent, with a lot of back and forth play and few fouls. Each team held the lead a couple of times, with the Lobos using a late layup from Sam Logwood (a rather redundant name) to take a 29-28 lead at the break.



The second half was similar, with SDSU taking a 48-41 lead only to see the Lobos come back and get within 52-50 with five minutes to go. This mark is important because the Aztecs are in the midst of one of the most amazing streaks - they had won 160 in a row when leading with five minutes remaining. The Lobos wanted no part of that streak and outscored SDSU 13-9 over the next four minutes. When Tim Williams missed a jumper, Logwood grabbed the offensive board and Elijah Brown drained a 3 to make it 66-61 with just 22 seconds left. San Diego State did not call timeout, preferring to run a play and Winston Shepherd followed up a Jeremy Hemsley (#42 above) miss with a layup to get within 3. At this point the Aztecs did call timeout. On the ensuing inbounds play, New Mexico passed the ball to a player coming out of bounds. This play is legal as long as the player moving out of bounds has one foot down, but the referee whistled it as illegal (incorrectly it was revealed later) and SDSU got the ball on the turnover. Malik Pope then sank a devilish three shot to tie the game at 66 with 6.6 seconds left.



This led to overtime and New Mexico took a 71-68 lead with two minutes to go. But their shooting went cold at that point as they missed their last four shots while Hemsley and Shepherd combined for 10 points for the Aztecs, who won 78-71 to extend that streak to 161 games.



This was a great game from start to finish, despite poor shooting from long range (9/47 combined). There were only 32 fouls called in 45 minutes, and although it was an officiating mistake that cost the Lobos the game, I still liked that the refs let them play. The return match is in Albuquerque on March 1, and promises to be just as entertaining.

Notes

I sat two seats behind a fan who was actually featured on the ticket. He even brought a board replicating the black and white crowd shot and it looked quite cool when he held up a ticket with the the board on his back. He was shown on the scoreboard but I haven't seen it anywhere else. ESPN didn't even cover the game on SportsCenter (at least the one I watched) because the top two teams (Oklahoma and North Carolina) in the country both lost to unranked teams (Kansas State and Notre Dame respectively).



At any rate, it is pretty cool to be featured on a ticket when you are a fan.

Best,

Sean

Saturday, February 6, 2016

San Jose Barracuda 0 at Ontario Reign 1 (AHL) - February 5, 2016


The primary purpose of this extended trip to California is to see the five new AHL teams. As you are probably aware, the league created a Pacific Division for the 2015-16 season and moved five franchises to the west coast. The Worcester Sharks became the San Jose Barracuda (no points for guessing which NHL team they belong to) while the Oilers and Ducks combined to move a team from Oklahoma City (Edmonton) to San Diego (Anaheim) while switching AHL and ECHL teams between Norfolk and Bakersfield. In the other two cases, the parent club simply exchanged their AHL and ECHL franchises: the Stockton Heat and Adirondack Flames switched places, while the Manchester Monarchs are now the Ontario Reign and vice versa.



Obviously the affiliate of the Los Angeles Kings, the Reign were my first AHL stop on the trip. The city of Ontario is part of the Inland Empire, which fits in nicely with the entire regal motif. The Reign play out of Citizens Business Bank Arena (the Royal Bank of Canada should really sponsor the naming rights), which is just off I-10 and only a few minutes from Ontario Airport. Built in 2008, the arena has a capacity of 9,736 for hockey and the team draws very well, averaging over 8,200 so far this season, good for fourth in the league.



The arena is not accessible by public transit, so you will have to drive unless you stay at one of the nearby hotels as I did. Parking is $5 and don't bother trying to park elsewhere, it isn't worth the hike. Ticket prices vary depending on the opponent, with the cheapest ranging from $13-20 plus a $3 facility charge. However, the Reign are very popular and on the night I showed up, the least expensive ticket was $29 for a second-level seat behind the net. I decided to wait for someone to show up with an extra and eventually found a lower level seat for $20. There are metal detectors at the entrance which slows everybody down, but as this is very close to San Bernardino, it is not surprising. In fact, one of the first responders to the terrorist attack was honoured before the game. It was also Pink at the Rink night and the Reign wore pink jerseys which were auctioned off for the Susan G. Komen foundation. Minimum bid was $500 and each jersey had found a bidder at that price, a surprise to me but a sign that the area is doing well economically.



The ice was also pink, though it was tough to tell, especially with my crappy camera.



The rink is typical for this level, with a single concourse servicing two seating levels, each of which offers excellent sightlines. If you want to avoid the glass, sit in the top four rows in the lower deck. Normally I move around during AHL games, but this one was nearly sold out, so I stayed in my seat for two periods before finding a standing area for most of the third.



There are a few attractions along the concourse, along with several sponsor desks. The arena was built on the site of the old Ontario Speedway, and this is noted in a couple of displays. I particularly liked the old photo which showed the speedway in the 1970s and pointed out what lies where today.



Interestingly, the Monarchs Calder Cup championship banner is on display, along with the old ECHL banners.



There are several concession stands each offering something unique, such as a Chicken Parm sandwich that is only available at one stand. Take a walk around the concourse to look at all your options. There is also a VIP club along the concourse. I spoke with a ticket rep as I was gathering schedules and mentioned that I was visiting, so he gave me a pass to the club, but it didn't have much other than a simple buffet and private restrooms. It happened to be $2 swill night, and unlike some places where they give you smaller cups, these were full 20-ounce beers. Yeah, it was Bud Light, but I didn't drive, so I had a couple.



There are several promotions, with the most interesting being the lucky section. During breaks in the game, about ten sections are awarded prizes such as a free double-double at In 'n' Out. The sections are announced very slowly, for example, "The winning section is (pause) 2 (pause) 0 (longer pause) 3!!!! Then all the fans in 203 cheer loudly as they receive their prize. I happened to be sitting in a winning section near the end of the game and received $5 off a $30 purchase at a local grocery, which is unusable as is is not valid for beer or wine purchases.

Overall, this is a very nice arena that delivers for its target audience. I believe that minor league hockey should be a bit cheaper, but fans here disagree and who am I to argue. If you are planning a trip to LA to see the Kings, check out the Reign schedule to see if you can include them and make it a truly royal event.

The Game

The Barracuda were in town and this promised to be a good matchup as both teams had not played in a week due to the All-Star break. Ontario was first in the division and started Peter Budaj (to the right below), who had shutout his last two opponents, while San Jose stood third and countered with Aaron Dell.



The Reign scored the only goal of the first period when Michael Mersch (#27 on the left above) banged home a rebound on the power play with just over six minutes to go. The Barracuda managed only 4 shots in that period, and were nearly invisible in the second, testing Budaj just once. They really should have been called the Where-a-cuda on this night.



San Jose managed to put together a decent third period, but Budaj stopped everything that came his way, including a couple of good chances late when San Jose had pulled their goalie. The final was 1-0 with that early Mersch marker holding up. Budaj now has a 1.56 GAA and a .935 save percentage and I am sure that the Canadiens, his last NHL team, could use his services right about now.



Notes

I saw Manchester play in the playoffs last season and it is interesting to note how many of the same players are still with the team. I suppose that living in the L.A. suburbs beats living in New Hampshire during the winter months.

Next Up

I am already in San Diego and saw a great college hoops game this afternoon, with San Diego State beating New Mexico in overtime. I'm now off to see the San Diego Gulls host Milwaukee in the second AHL game of the trip. Check back for updates on Monday, as I'll be watching the Super Bowl tomorrow.

Best,

Sean

Friday, February 5, 2016

Rio Grande Valley Vipers 107 at Bakersfield Jam 117 (NBA D-League) - February 4, 2016


The most exclusive ticket in pro sports belongs to the Bakersfield Jam of the NBA D-League. The Jam used to play out of the Rabobank Center but could not compete with the Condors of the ECHL and the owners found themselves losing money. Rather than fold the team though, they came up with the idea to use their new practice facility as their home court and sell only corporate sponsorships to local businesses, who receive season tickets in return.



That was in 2009 and the fact that the Jam are still playing is a testament to the success of this business model. The venue, renamed the Dignity Health Event Center in 2012, is very difficult to get into without a contact in the Bakersfield business world as there is no box office for walk-up sales or online secondary market. Fortunately, my work for Stadium Journey allowed me to receive a media credential and I was able to watch the game last night between the Rio Grande Valley Vipers (Houston's affiliate) and the Jam (Phoenix).



The venue is located in north Bakersfield on Norris Road and is difficult to spot for first-time visitors as only a few small signs indicate that there is a sporting event going on. Parking is free and more than enough for the crowd. After receiving my credential, I was given a tour of the facility, which is quite impressive. There are 120 courtside seats and a number of courtside suites which are tables that seat 6 but can accommodate up to 10 (below).



There are also four executive lofts above one end of the court - these are more like suites in your typical arena, with couches, food and beverage delivery, and memorabilia.



The view from the lofts is below.



This is the lobby for the lofts, more like an exclusive British club than a basketball arena.



There is also a cigar room, something you don't see at most sporting venues.



A local restaurant provides a buffet for all fans which is included in the ticket price. It is much better than your usual stadium fare, but if you are hankering for a pretzel or some popcorn, there is a lounge above the north end of the floor which sells those items along with beer and wine. There is also a charging station available here.



The lounge seats are quite comfortable and provide a great view. You can see the four lofts at the far end.



There is a single scoreboard above center court with only the score information, player stats are not available in real time but stat sheets are distributed to fans after every quarter.



The Jam maintain most of the traditional entertainment elements of the game, including a mascot, Swish (below). There are no cheerleaders, but three staff members, dubbed the Foxy Ladies, occasionally take the court to dance along with Swish. During timeouts, there are promotions on the floor that involve fans competing for a variety of prizes. In one instance, two fans rolled oversized dice, with the higher total winning a two-night stay at a Lake Tahoe resort, a much nicer prize that you will see at most pro arenas.



Overall, I was very impressed with the operation here. The fans in attendance are treated very well and there are many little touches that add to the experience, such as a cookie provided to all fans at halftime, a bingo game that keeps you focused on the events at hand, and a P.A. announcer who interacts with the crowd, calling many of them by name. With attendance limited to 550 per game and most of those regular visitors, the atmosphere is much more friendly than in larger arenas.

Unfortunately for most sports travellers, finding your way in will not be easy. All I can suggest is that you contact the Jam and mention that you are interested in seeing the facility during the game. The staff are extremely friendly and although single-game visitors are not part of the business model, they might be willing to work with you. If you live in Bakersfield, on the other hand, definitely see if your firm can become a Jam partner if it hasn't already; there is no experience like it in pro sports.

The Game

The Vipers were in town and boasting NBA veteran Donatas Motiejunas (below listening to coach Matt Brase), down from Houston on a rehab assignment.



RGV got off to a slow start, missing their first four field goals, allowing the Jam to take an early 7-1 lead. Surprisingly, the Vipers never tied it up after that, coming within a point at 21-20 late in the first quarter, but never drawing closer.



The first half ended 61-51 with Bakersfield outshooting RGV 56% to 33%. In fact, of the Vipers 49 attempts, 25 came from beyond the arc, with only 9 going down. The Vipers are known for this style of play as it is mandated from Houston's GM Daryl Morey, and the now-shuttered Grantland wrote an article on them a couple of years ago.




The Vipers sank their first three bombs in the second half to crawl within three points at 65-62, but a quick 11-4 run by Bakersfield re-established the 10-point cushion. Whenever RGV drew close, the Jam made a couple of key shots, and the third quarter ended 91-80.



The final frame saw Motiejunas scored eight points in just over a minute as the Vipers got it to within five, and the same margin was on the board with 3:42 to go and Bakersfield up 108-103. Over the next couple of minutes, the Jam went on an 8-0 run to clinch it, with Cory Jefferson sealing the game with a dunk.



The final was 117-107 in a game that was choppy due to the number of fouls. The refs were calling everything, with 49 total fouls leading to 58 free throws. Rio Grande Valley sank 15 of 43 from long-range, their number of makes just one less than the number of attempts by Bakersfield, who hit nine.  Terrico White led all scorers with 31 for the Jam, while Jefferson finished with 20 points and 14 boards. Will Cummings netted 29 for the losers with Motiejunas picking up 16 points in 22 minutes off the bench.

Notes

Midway through the second quarter, the official scorer seemed to make a mistake. I was sitting directly behind him and watching him use the computer to update the play-by-play. Anyway, there was confusion about the score and it took the officials nearly ten minutes to sort it out. In the end, a point was given to Bakersfield, but that was taken away at halftime when they had a chance to review the tape so the official scorer was right after all.

Next Up

I'm heading further south today to Ontario where the AHL's Reign will host the San Jose Barracuda tonight. Tomorrow is a doubleheader in San Diego with college hoops in the afternoon and more AHL in the evening. Check back daily for updates.

Best,

Sean

Thursday, February 4, 2016

Fresno State Bulldogs 53 at San Jose State Spartans 65 (NCAA Basketball, Mountain West) - February 3, 2016


I'm in California for a couple of weeks to check out the five new AHL teams and to get away from the cold New York winter. Well, I expected it to be cold when I planned this trip, but regardless, it is still warmer on the west coast. The AHL schedule is weekend heavy, so to fill out the weekdays, I added some college hoops to the slate. Thus the first stop on my tour was San Jose State, home of the Spartans.



The SJSU campus takes up 18 square blocks in downtown San Jose and is about a mile from the SAP Center, home of the NHL's Sharks (and AHL's Barracuda). I walked from my accommodation in Japantown and approached from the north, fortuitously happening upon the Olympic Black Power sculpture shown above. Sports enthusiasts will know the basics of the story, but probably are unaware that Tommie Smith and John Carlos were both student-athletes at San Jose State. They were vilified at the time, expelled from the Games and the recipients of death threats, but time has shown them to be nothing but courageous. Arrive early to have a look at this impressive artwork and the other buildings on campus.



The basketball teams play at the Event Center Arena, a most unoriginal name but still miles better than all the constantly changing corporate monikers. Follow 7th Street through campus and you will see the building near the south end, with the ticket window beneath the marquee as shown above.



The main entrance is up a set of stairs that lead you to a series of doors (below).



As you might suspect, the Event Center hosts many other events so it is quite a bit bigger than necessary for Spartan basketball. The court is laid atop a cement floor, with chairback seats on three sides and a small set of benches at the far end that are used by a few students to harass opposition free throw shooters in the first half.



As you can see below there is considerable space between those seats and the court, so not a good spot to sit for anyone other than obnoxious students. The same goes for the seats in the opposite end zone.



The Spartans employ tiered pricing depending on the opponent. Rival Fresno State ranks as Tier 1, the most expensive, with GA tickets costing $16, a bit much for this level of hoops. When Tier 3 opponents are in town, the same ticket will be $10. The GA sections include those terrible end zone seats as well as the end sections on the sidelines, which are just as bad as they don't even face the court (below). Fortunately, ushers don't check, so you can sit where you want. The students sit in sections 13-15, which are the three leftmost sections in the photo below, so avoid those.



The photo above was taken just after gates opened, but by tip-off the student section has mostly filled up, though I think the announced crowd of 2,324 was a bit high. Note the special design on the floor, which was added in 2013 when the Spartans joined the Mountain West conference. In their first two seasons they went 1-35 in conference play with the win coming over Nevada on the road, so guess the basketball gods were not impressed with the garish addition.



Food is pretty basic and quite overpriced ($5 hot dog for example). SJSU students can use a separate concession stand at which prices are discounted by about 50%, and yes, you do need an ID.



Overall, I found the venue to be quite, well, spartan. There are a few old, worn banners (visible in the large photos above) but nothing else to indicate that this sometimes hosts sporting events.  There is a plaque honouring Bill Walsh (below), but this is next to one of the lower entrances and most fans will not notice it. If you want to see it, take the floor-level exit between sections 12 and 13. Otherwise, just buy your ticket, take your seat, and watch the Spartans try for a rare win.



The visitors were the Fresno State Bulldogs, my third straight game seeing a team with that nickname. They came in at 5-3, while the Spartans were 2-8, having finally won a conference game at home, beating Wyoming last month, and doubling that total with a win over Air Force on the weekend.



The first half was characterized by brutal shooting from both squads, with the Spartans managing a 10-7 lead at the midway point. That's 17 points in 10 minutes; fellow Bay Area basketballer Steph Curry sometimes gets twice that on his own. Brandon Clarke (#15 above) finally got the crowd into it with three straight dunks that gave San Jose State at 16-9 lead. Fresno State, realizing that outside shooting was not an option, made some layups to get back into the game, trailing 24-23 at the break.



The second half saw the teams trade more bricks, but on occasion the ball did find the net and with three minutes left, the Spartans led 51-48. SJSU's Frank Rogers missed a jumper, but Clarke grabbed the offensive board, only to have his layup bounce away. Yet again though, the Spartans grabbed the rebound and this time, Isaac Thornton made the basket, getting fouled in the process. Surprisingly, that was the last meaningful field goal in the game. After Thornton sank the free throw, the Bulldogs tried a three, but missed. Rogers grabbed the board, only to be stupidly fouled by Cezar Guerrero  (#12 above) with the Bulldogs in the double bonus. Rogers sank both shots and suddenly it was 56-48 with two minutes left.



Fresno State had been struggling from the line, so the Spartans smartly fouled to force the Bulldogs to shoot the 1-and-1. The first shot missed and when Thornton was fouled on the Spartans subsequent possession, he sank both to make it 58-48. Fresno State still had a chance to get back in it, but three more misses ended that pretty quickly. They continued to foul for no good reason, and San Jose State made their shots to make the final a rout-like 65-53.



The difference was free throw shooting: Fresno State went 8/18 (44%) from the charity stripe while SJSU completed 23 of 27 (85.2%). The Bulldogs were also dismal from the field at 21/61 (34%). Marvelle Harris (below) was the chief bricklayer, going 2/16. Not a pretty game, but a happy result to the Spartan faithful who deserve some cheer after those last couple of seasons.



Notes

Five years ago I visited a Sacramento River Cats game and sat with a group having a farewell party. It was a great experience and I became Facebook friends with one of those members, Syd, who is quite the sports fan. Although we did not keep in touch directly, I knew from this posts that Syd had graduated from San Jose State, so I idly wondered if he would be at the game. It was unlikely as he lived about two hours away but as I wandered the concourse, I found out that two hours is not that far as Syd walked right by me. He was deep in conversation with his girlfriend, and it took me a couple of seconds to realize that it was him, but I chased him down. He was pretty surprised to see me, but we caught up quickly and I sat with him and his girlfriend near the end of the game to talk about the new Sacramento Kings arena. Always fun to meet friends and acquaintances on these trips, but this one was certainly unexpected and made this visit even more memorable.

Before the game, I spent some time in Japantown before the game and was pleased to happen upon a branch of the Nijiya supermarket. Walking through the door is like traveling to Japan: overpriced fruits and vegetables alongside cheap boxed lunches and everything else that you might find in a small Tokyo grocery. What surprised me was the cheap Japanese beer, until I realized that it is actually brewed in Los Angeles. Anyway, if you need some Japanese food, check this place out, it is only a few minutes from downtown San Jose.

Next Up

I'm in Bakersfield for the NBA D-League's Jam, a truly exclusive sporting event. Then driving down to Ontario for the first AHL visit on the trip on Friday. Check back daily to see what I'm up to over the next couple of weeks.

Best,

Sean