It's the kind of publicity you can't buy if you aspire to be a top-tier college basketball program: During last week's national broadcast of the Syracuse-USF game, network announcers killed some time during a lull in play by gushing over the newly renovated Sun Dome.
During the Big East Conference broadcast, play-by-play announcer Anish Shroff called the facility "a gem." With scenes of the new weight room and practice court on televisions nationwide, color commentator Bob Wenzel said he was "very impressed."
The TV duo echoed the praise coming in from several fronts as the University of South Florida Bulls men's and women's basketball teams have settled into their new digs. After $35.6 million in construction and a year playing at the Forum in downtown Tampa, the Bulls are enjoying what athletic director Doug Woolard calls "as nice a 10,000-seat arena as on any college campus in the country."
"Renovation" might be a little tame in describing the Sun Dome project. The arena was gutted, leaving the main walls and ceiling. Everything within the superstructure is new, said Ashley Walker, a spokeswoman for USF athletics.
"There was nothing. When I came in, it was a concrete circle," said Walker, who came to USF in 2011. "They gutted it and completely re-did everything."
There are 10 loge suites as well as new and better bathrooms. An elite Hardwood Club has been built for big spenders, a length-of-the-court Arena Club for those with club seats and a Student Club for, of course, students. The court features a center-hung LED board, and there are high-definition video boards in each corner of the arena. Typical amenities that were missing from the old dome, from open concourses to modern concession and souvenir stands, are in place.
The highlight for the hoopsters is the practice facility, the Pam and Les Muma Basketball Center, which is attached to the arena and includes identical practice courts, weight and training rooms, lounges and film rooms for the men's and women's programs.
Those features are expected to help head coach Stan Heath land recruits that might not have been impressed with the old, stale facility. That prospect was raised by the Big East Network's Shroff during a TV break during the Syracuse game.
"South Florida's got its best recruiting class coming in," he told a nationwide audience. "They've got a new tool, a new toy for recruiting. It's the Muma Center, a new practice facility for basketball. State-of-the-art weight rooms. You need these state-of-the-art facilities now if you want to play big-time basketball and compete with the best, which is the goal here at South Florida for Stan Heath."
Wenzel chimed in: "This was sorely needed. The Sun Dome (had) fallen on hard times. Now it's terrific. I'm very impressed. Beautiful locker rooms for visiting and home teams. Good stuff."
The remake isn't only benefiting the basketball teams. Global Spectrum, a manager of arenas, amphitheaters and entertainment venues around the world, has been brought in to manage the facility and has already lured Rock and Roll Hall-of-Famer Elton John, alternative darlings Florence + the Machine, R&B/soul star Keith Sweat and even the Mythbusters cable television road show.
"The nice thing about this arena is that it wasn't built as, 'We just need to house a basketball team,'" said Trent Merritt, general manager of the Sun Dome. "The vision was that it was a multipurpose arena that is going to host concerts, it's going to host family shows, it's going to really, truly be a multipurpose facility."
The original Sun Dome went up in 1980, with an inflatable cloth roof, garish yellow seats and few amenities.
Student Brendan Kinney, who has attended a couple of games this year, said the original building looked old. "You could tell it was aged, a little beaten up," he said. He described the new Sun Dome as well-kept and comfortable.
Woolard, the athletic director, said fans attend sporting events for two reasons: the product and the fan experience. "Our product has gotten much better," he said. "Now our experience has, too."
Big East officials also lauded the facility. John Paquette, an associate commissioner for the conference, visited the Sun Dome while here for the conference baseball tournament in the spring.
"It's a fabulous place, they've done a magnificent job," Paquette said. "You always want your conference members to play in a first-class facility, and certainly USF has a first-class facility."
The old arena was "a facility that had certainly served its time here," Woolard said. "It was certainly in need of transformation, and a transformation it got. It has surpassed my best hopes as to how it would end up."