After $75 million, four years of construction and recent political debates about its existence, Paige Sports Arena finally shined on its opening night.
Those in attendance, even some with a strong attachment to Hearnes Center, received Paige Sports Arena with open arms and lots of superlatives.
“It’s fantastic,” said Eric Gunthrie, a technician who operates the spotlight during the Tigers’ starting lineup. “You look around and it’s much brighter. The concourses are huge. The scoreboard is enormous. I mean everything is just better.”
Gunthrie ran a spotlight at Hearnes Center for five years. He said his doubts about the atmosphere at Paige Sports Arena were quickly erased.
“I think people were in a little bit of shock when they first got here,” Gunthrie said. “People were walking around with their mouths open.
Once the fans did sit down, the Tigers didn’t disappoint. The Missouri men’s basketball team defeated Central Missouri State 100-73 in front of 10,328 fans.
The arena was about three quarters full at game time, but many fans trickled out as the Tigers pulled away from the Mules.
Paige Sports Arena has a seating capacity of 15,601, including 26 private suites, compared with Hearnes Center’s capacity of about 13,000.
The arena’s floor plan, with aisles and concourses wider than at Hearnes, is designed for accessibility. “The setup is much nicer,” usher Alison Dauerheim, who worked in Hearnes last year, said. “It’s just much more modern and up-to-date. It’s bigger, obviously.”
With suites, high-tech scoreboards and a list of high-profile donors, Paige Sports Arena has a business-class atmosphere. The Laurie family donated $25 million for the arena, which is named after Bill and Nancy’s daughter Paige Laurie. The remaining funding came from a $35 million state bond issue and $15 million in additional private donations.
But even fans in the cheap seats had no complaints.
“It’s amazing,” Mike Anderson, an MU fan from Columbia sitting in the upper deck.
“Everything is open and clear. I really especially like the lights that wrap around the stadium, too.
“I have no complaints about sitting up here. You aren’t looking as far down as at Hearnes Center and the light is better.”
Cruz Buchanan and his friend Cole Cade, students at Columbia Catholic Elementary School, just kept smiling from their seats in the arena’s lower bowl.
“This place is awesome,” the 11-year-old Buchanan said. “It’s way, way cooler than the old place.”
Up on the concourse, fans swept past another smiling face.
Ken Kessler of Columbia worked in the information booth at Hearnes Center for nine years. He could hardly contain his excitement with his new workplace.
“To me, Hearnes Center still feels like home,” Kessler said. “But this is a beautiful facility. It’s definitely something to be proud of. I haven’t toured all the stadiums, but I would think this has to be about the best one in the country.”
Kessler said he was surprised with the question fans asked him the most.
“The biggest question I’ve gotten so far has been where all the programs are,” Kessler said. “Usually, they try to beat you down with those things at the door, but here, no one can find them.”
Programs were available at tables on either side of the main entrances.
For as glowing as many reviews of Paige Sports Arena were, there were still some kinks to be worked out.
“I mean, for the most part, it is perfect,” Steven Black of St. Louis said. “But I would suggest they do something about the parking. They didn’t really do a good job telling us what lot was what. We just kept driving around looking for ours. It was crammed out there.”
One person on the concourse who didn’t seem enthused was custodian Ortiz Cain. He listened to music on headphones, opting not to watch the game.
Cain cleans up after games in Paige Sports Arena and Hearnes Center. He said he now prefers Hearnes Center because the fewer visitors leave less of a mess.
“It’s going to bring a lot of people and I guess that’s a good thing for the program,” Cain said. “But it’s big and I got to help them clean all that up, so that’s one thing I don’t like about it.”