In February, shouty all-caps “GOGGLES REQUIRED” signs plastered the fish-bowl glass of the Alaska Airlines Center auxiliary gym, a warning to shield your eyes from all the science and engineering taking place inside. Huddled within, 36 high school robotics teams from around the state competed for six coveted spots representing Alaska at a regional robotics championship in California. Be-goggled teenage engineers aren’t typically who you’d expect to find when you walk through the doors of a space the Anchorage community colloquially refers to as “the new sports arena.”
To be sure, the AAC has helped UAA up its sports game, showcasing athletics like volleyball and basketball in the 5,000-seat arena and hosting whooping gymnastics fans in the auxiliary gym for home meets. More on growing athletics event attendance in a minute. But, in addition to boosting athletics, the AAC has become a new home for community events, large and small. In the eight months since UAA opened doors to the AAC, they’ve coordinated with the facility’s management company, Global Spectrum, to keep space open on their calendars for events to attract a broad cross-section of Alaskans.
How about a sampling?
In September, the AAC hosted two charity events—the scholarship-raising Green & Gold Gala and the delicious Taste of Alaska in support of the Food Bank of Alaska. In October, they welcomed thousands of Tim McGraw fans for his first-ever Alaska concert as well as hundreds of civic-minded women for the 2014 Alaska Women’s Summit. The following month, high school volleyball fans had the run of the place during the Alaska School Activities Association (ASAA) volleyball championships before the decks were cleared to make way for the GCI Great Alaska Shootout. And in December, UAA was able to host its first on-campus graduation ceremony in more than 30 years.
“This is becoming a community center,” said Keith Hackett, UAA’s director of athletics. “When we were putting together our list of priorities, our priorities were, first and foremost, graduation ceremonies. Second was UAA Seawolf Athletics. Third thing was ASAA championship events.”
And, indeed, March again found ASAA athletes—this time high school basketball stars—tearing up the AAC courts for their championship games.
The 2014–2015 season is, Hackett said, just the beginning for the AAC. “I have to liken it to a young baby. When a baby is six months old, he or she is doing the army crawl or starting to roll over, kind of finding its way. We’re learning something new every day.”
‘UAA has a gymnastics team?’
Without question every UAA sports team has benefitted from the improved strength-training, conditioning and sports medicine facilities in the AAC. One team in particular is emblematic of the AAC’s impact on UAA Athletics—our Division I Gymnastics team.
Ask an upperclassman on the team and they’ll tell you that as recently as last year, they would hear questions like, “UAA has a gymnastics team?” That stings when you’re an athlete who puts in sweaty hours every day to achieve and maintain elite status. But it’s maybe understandable considering the team had virtually no visible presence on campus. They practiced off-site and competed on the road more than they did at home.
That all changed this fall when the team moved into their custom-built practice facility—a place they have almost unlimited access to for training (as long as a coach is present). Curious onlookers stop by to watch practice through the glass. And their home meets are held next door to their practice facility, in the auxiliary gym. No more loading athletes into snow-covered vans for a daily trek across town to practice. No more wrangling apparatus into the back of moving vans to haul it to a performance venue.
Arguably, no one is more energized by the improvements than Coach Paul Stoklos, who has been with the team for 31 years. With more time and space for practice, his athletes have all upgraded their routines.
“We can throw more difficulty than ever before, in part, because we can train more in that gym,” he said. “The in-ground foam pits allow the girls to work skills and take landings that they wouldn’t walk away from in our old gym. It gives the girls more confidence in what they’re doing.”
And their fans are loving it. Attendance at meets has been trending upwards. So have the decibel levels in the crowds. Stoklos likes to give the crowds a little Gymnastics 101 talk before a meet. Key point: “If the girls are making noise, odds are it was something really cool and you should be making noise.”
A quick look at floor routines shows the team’s transformation. “Last year, we had one person on the team doing a double back on floor—two flips and land. Now Simone does two, Marie does two, Kelsey does one, Kendra does one, Nicky does one, Sariaye does one, Emily does one, Morgan does one, Julia does one,” he said, ticking off athletes on his fingers. “We went from one to nine!” Collegiate teams are only allowed to field six athletes in each event during meets, so having nine athletes clamoring to throw high point value routines is a great “problem” for the coaches to have.
The business end of college athletics
While Hackett is keeping an eye on all the Seawolf athletes and coaches, he’s also tasked with the Seawolf Athletics bottom line.
“This building is a business,” he said. “It is, without question, the best Division II facility in America and probably better than half the Division I facilities in America.”
So, how is that translating in attendance and revenue? Across the board, it’s up, up, up.
We’re seeing about 25 percent more volleyball fans in the stands and the crowds for men’s and women’s basketball have doubled.
“We’re way up in season ticket sales,” Hackett said. “We’re way up in single game sales.” He’s crunched the numbers for volleyball (the only completed season for which data was available at the time of printing) and their ticket sales revenue is up 115 percent over last year. Shootout revenue is up 66 percent.
“People want to come here,” he continued. “We have a destination restaurant upstairs on the mezzanine level. Even if there’s not a game, come and eat at the restaurant, walk around the track. It feels so much more friendly.” Hot tip: the Varsity Sports Grill’s window seats are a great place to catch a game while you enjoy dinner, but call ahead or arrive early—they fill up fast. Just check the AAC calendar.
“I think we have a lot of good things going on,” Hackett said. “The Alaska Airlines Center helps our campus become more of the place we know it is. It’s a great institution.”
Don’t miss some of the great spring and summer events they have planned. Visit www.alaskaairlinescenter.com for the full slate of athletics and community events.
Written by Jamie Gonzales, UAA Office of University Advancement