Arena improvements will bolster more than just basketball at UNF

School announces $1.3 million in arena upgrades to enhance gameday experience

UNF athletic director Nick Morrow speaks at Ospreys basketball media day on Wednesday morning. (Justin Barney, News4Jax)

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – The University of North Florida wants to create the best gameday experience — and beyond — for students, donors, its athletes and fans.

The first step in a very broad plan to enhance the athletic experience across campus came into focus on Wednesday as the school announced a series of improvements that will begin in the UNF Arena and gradually touch numerous parts of the university.

The first wave is a $1.3 million project that will add a hospitality suite and a bar and lounge, as well as creating premium balcony seating in the arena. The school expects that work to be completed in the first part of 2023.

That’s the initial step.

Athletic director Nick Morrow said the ability to network with donors and create revenue through the creation of the Bank of England Hospitality Suite will allow UNF to better address other athletic venues that need work, like Harmon Stadium.

“The amount of support we’ve gotten financially, verbally, just people starting to talk about it, it’s been absolutely tremendous,” Morrow said. “And that’s just given us further motivation to keep doing it. So, I think from here, now that we’re making this more of a public facility and public project, I think more people are going to get excited about it. It’s only going to grow from here.”

The Bank of England Hospitality Suite will be a multi-use zone for fans, donors and students. Just outside of the suite will be a balcony that opens up to 72 premium seats for basketball games. The suite will also be a rental-type venue for the university for corporate and external events. That, Morrow said, will give the school the opportunity to create a revenue stream that doesn’t currently exist.

Morrow said the suite also has the ability to be divided and used for day-to-day operations, a film room, as well as a recruiting tool for all of the university’s athletic programs. Coaches can wrap up their pitches to recruits and their families in an area of the suite.

The school is upgrading the sound system after the basketball season. It upgraded all the lighting in the arena and replaced the bulk of the bleacher seats previously. Replacing the flooring is also forthcoming.

The ability to pull in revenue from the hospitality suite, which will have the Brix Taphouse Bar as the focal point of it, will lead to improvements across the campus. Morrow said that the creation of revenue opportunities within the UNF Arena will stretch beyond the basketball court. While the focus right now is enhancing the arena’s offerings, the investment will filter to every sport at the school.

“It’s awesome to see all these different ideas and things that were scribbled on paper a while ago, and how they’ve continued to grow and grow and grow,” said UNF men’s basketball coach Matthew Driscoll.

“And his vision, really with his hospitality, it’s almost like being in the stock market. He’s going to take this lump sum of money, and he’s going to put it into this hospitality stock, and then he’s going to watch that stock grow and mature and split and become another dividend, and yada, yada, yada. So, the hospitality room was huge for everything else, and that’s what’s exciting, the vision.”

Men’s basketball

Always on go, Coach Matthew Driscoll is excited about the upcoming basketball season. On paper, it could be the most challenging slate in UNF history. The Ospreys face six NCAA tournament teams from last season, including Final Four program UCLA and state teams, Florida and Florida State.

UNF men's basketball coach Matthew Driscoll speaks at media day on Wednesday morning. (News4Jax)

The start is challenging for UNF. The Ospreys open with Texas Tech and Texas A&M on Nov. 9-10. It faces UCLA on Nov. 17 and Kentucky on Nov. 26.

UNF (8-15, 6-6 ASUN) was projected to finish seventh in the Atlantic Sun Conference’s Coaches Poll, and picked to finish sixth in the Preseason Media Poll. Liberty and Eastern Kentucky were picked Nos. 1 and 2, respectively, in both polls.

Junior forward Carter Hendricksen returns to lead the Ospreys. He averaged 14.9 ppg last season for UNF. He was a first-team All-SUN selection. Point guard Jose Placer (second on the Ospreys in scoring (14.5 ppg) said that a slew of returnees and the easing restrictions of the pandemic make this season a big one.

“Super excited for this year, bringing a lot of guys back, more experience. And then not having the Covid protocols, not having to worry about games being canceled because someone tested positive, or traveling, having to come back, quarantining. That’s all exciting. Everyone’s bought in, we all have one goal in mind and that’s to win a championship this year.”

UNF returns four starters this season and nine players overall.

Women’s basketball

Big expectations await Coach Darrick Gibbs. And that’s perfectly fine for him.

The Ospreys were voted No. 2 in the Atlantic Sun Conference’s Preseason Coaches Poll. They were a third-place pick in the media rankings. Forward Jazz Bond was the Preseason ASUN Defensive Player of the Year pick. Sister, guard Jaida Bond, as well as Marissa Mackins, also landed on the Preseason All-Conference team.

“By going out every practice and competing like it’s our last, I just feel like the end goal is to come home with a ring,” said guard Tiffany Tolbert. “I feel like that’s everyone’s goal.”

Gibbs isn’t shying away from those expectations. In fact, he thinks this team has the potential to exceed them.

“The realistic expectation is we want and we feel like we have the talent and the ability to win the ASUN championship and get to the NCAA tournament. Like that is the ultimate goal. They understand that. We know that that’s the expectation,” Gibbs said. “But honestly, that’s been the expectation. I just feel right now from a talent level that we have in this group and the experience we have in this group, this is the best position we’ve ever been in actually accomplish that.”

UNF women's basketball coach Darrick Gibbs speaks at media day on Wednesday morning. (News4Jax)

The Ospreys went 14-11 last year (11-5 in the ASUN) and there’s a glut of experience. There’s only one freshman on the squad. The women open the season Nov. 9 at Florida State.

“I think our coaches are really good about reminding us about of setting short term goals,” said guard Rhetta Moore. “… Having those short term goals will ultimately help us lead to our long-term goal of winning the ASUN championship.”

About the Author:

Justin Barney joined News4Jax in February 2019, but he’s been covering sports on the First Coast for more than 20 years.