STEPHEN C. O’CONNELL CENTER
Home of the Preseason No. 10 University of Florida Gators
We kick off our ten-day tour of the Preseason Top 10 at the multi-purpose O’Connell Center on the University of Florida campus. Home to Gators men’s and women’s basketball and volleyball teams, the O’Dome converts to become an indoor track facility. Its inflatable fabric roof also houses an Olympic-size pool and diving tanks for the Gator swim teams, studios for the gymnastics teams, practice courts for basketball, martial arts studios, strength and conditioning areas for all the athletic teams. More than just a basketball arena, the O’Connell Center is a hub for all things Gator sports – a study in maximum use and space management efficiency in a sports facility.
The O’Connell Center opened during the 1980 season, replacing the 7,000-seat Florida Gymnasium. It is located on the campus’ northern edge among a string of athletic buildings that line Stadium Road. The Linder Tennis Center, Percy Beard Track Field, McKethan Baseball Stadium and Ben Hill Griffin Football Stadium are all largely single-use facilities. As the home of eight sport teams, the O’Connell Center forms the centerpiece of this athletic village.
O’Connell Center is an octagonal building with its primary concrete structure at the corners of its eight sides. The structural ribs rise from the campus green and plateau midway up the building, only to rise again and come together to form the arena’s roof. The double-curved structure is organized such that the taller curve in the center forms the space for the 12,000-seat basketball arena. Located under the lower curve on the outer perimeter of the building – essentially the space underneath the seating bowl of the basketball arena – are the swimming pool, diving tanks and gymnastics studios. Spanning between the structure is a translucent, Teflon-coated fabric roof which creates a bright interior space. The fabric for the central area was replaced by a concrete roof for the 1998 season, significantly darkening was once a unique, naturally lit basketball arena.
The basketball arena consists of three tiers: the court level, a mezzanine and an upper deck. Telescopic bleachers on the court and mezzanine levels allow for further multi-functionality of the space. Pushing the bleachers back on the court level provides more space for track events, as well as concerts, public speakers and other non-sport functions that require more floor space. Pushing back the bleachers on the mezzanine level reveals an indoor track that is used by the Gator track team in the winter.
The bottom two levels don’t have seating at each of the corners, while on the upper level seats continuously wraps the arena top. The flexibility enabled by the telescopic bleachers, instead of fixed seats, reduces the comfort of the seating and the open corners reduce the overall capacity and game day atmosphere. Despite this, the O’Dome is consistently ranked one of the toughest places for visiting teams to play and the university benefits from the flexibility that allows a variety of teams to use the space.
The O’Connell Center is not the world’s most beautiful venue. Although, if you follow great American architect Louis Sullivan’s creed, “form follows function”, it is a great success. The O’Dome’s ability to accommodate such a large number of uses is exemplary and should be a model for indoor sports venues. It will be interesting to see how the other nine arenas we will look at over the next ten days match up.