Athletics are often a staple of the college experience on American campuses. Sports take front and center at many universities. In the fall, college football takes over campuses and sees both students and alumni flock to huge arenas to watch their team compete for a national title. In the spring, basketball conference play is in high swing leading up to March Madness, which gets even the most uninterested student involved at their university. George Mason University (originally George Mason College) is no different. The lack of a football stadium has led to an increased focus on basketball when it comes to student athletics. Home basketball games for the men’s and women’s teams are hosted at the EagleBank Arena. The arena has gone through many changes over the years: it started out as the Patriot Center in the 1980s and then became EagleBank Arena in 2015 when EagleBank invested almost seven million dollars into the university with an option to extend the contract if they choose to do so. Today, EagleBank Arena is the home of basketball athletics for George Mason University. This wasn’t always the case.
George Mason University’s arena was first used starting in 1985. Prior to that, basketball athletics had been conducted out of the school gym in the 70s and 80s. In 1982, Mason received a revenue bond from the Virginia General Assembly which would allow them to build what would become the Patriot Center. The bond was reported by the Washington Post to be valued at almost $20 million dollars total. The additional $10 million was designated for dormitories and other campus facilities, according to the report. However, archival documentation from the university’s Board of Visitors meeting minutes tells a different story.
The first time the idea of the arena was mentioned in the Board of Visitors meeting was in 1981.1 In May, there was a lunch set up between the Governor, senators, delegates, and Mason administrators. The university was proposing a $60 million dollar capital plan. There were two large components to that proposal. The first half of the proposal was devoted to a “new center of the University, a complex of an administrative/performing hall building and a humanities building.” The other half of the proposal was devoted to what would become the arena. In the notes, this plan portion was referred to as, “Our revenue bond project which is referred to as an arena or ‘spectator’ gym will complement the participatory facility which is now going up across Route 123 (West Campus).” This first mention sets up connectivity between two campus facilities: the field house and the arena. Both facilities are still in use today. The field house is home to many athletic team practices and used to be home to basketball practices. The March meeting minutes from 1982 noted that the arena was part of a funding package from the Virginia State Assembly valued internally at $6.2 million dollars and was coupled with the humanities and university center complex.2 Following this meeting, the committee continued to give regular updates on the construction process of the building.
The University at this time was in great shape. Enrollment had been through the roof, expansion plans are in full swing, and the college was focused on attracting the best professors through recruiting. The administration and Board of Visitors felt that the next big step to elevate the university’s profile was to build an arena facility. At this point in time, in the early-80s, basketball was reaching new levels of popularity with the Celtics and Lakers rivalry emerging and Jordan on the horizon. The school had a perfect entrance into that world. It was one of the few colleges just outside of D.C. so it could attract lots of Northern Virginia families to visit. George Mason’s lack of a football team meant that this new opportunity would allow them to elevate the basketball team to be a premier team in the area.
By 1982, the funding for the Arena had been secured from the General Assembly. Following the approval of funding, the University planning team hit the ground running. By the end of 1982, the site had been selected, an architect hired, and the Master Plan had been approved.
The following year, 1983, proved to be an important year in the process of building the arena. There was an error that was brought to the Board of Visitors’ attention in January: the arena’s gross square footage was counted improperly. This resulted in a $5.2 million increase in construction costs from $11.5 to $16.7 million.3 Following the resolution of the issue, 1983 proved to be a really productive year in the process. By May, the working drawings were completed. The end of the year saw construction begin, the land had been cleared, seats and equipment decisions were beginning to be made, and traffic impact on the community was addressed by the Land Use Committee.4
The penultimate year of the arena construction process saw a lot of progress. However, the progress was clouded by construction delays due to weather. By January, the project was 6-8 weeks behind schedule, which was only compounded by June when the project was 73 ½ days behind. The project team tried to mitigate these delays by working double shifts and Saturdays. Final choices were made on seating choices and professional arena management. The arena finally opened its doors in 1985, and Mason held the 1985 Commencement ceremony in the Arena when it was completed.
Work continued late into the year to finish up the finishing touches. August 15 was the semi-final inspection date for the facility. A few days later, beneficial occupancy was granted to the Administrative Office, which meant they could start to occupy the space. In September, the scoreboard was put in place. There were a few other tasks left to finish on the punch list. November saw the establishment of the operating budget for the 1985-86 year. The budget was set up for the debt to be paid off in 2005 with annual payments of $1.3 million with a 7.86% interest to pay to complete the $12.75 million dollar loan.5
Within the budget there are some interesting details that serve as both a time capsule and a glimpse into the future. The budget details a breakdown of how the University planned to make money through operating the arena outside of Mason activities. The budget includes a monetary breakdown of 95 events and their monetary contribution to pay off their debt. The events ranged from family/children shows to varying levels of sports and concerts of multiple musical genres. Some of the specific names the budget mentioned were the Barnum and Bailey Circus as well as Disney Ice events. The budget proposal mentions why it feels a wide variety of event styles is the best way to operate the arena. The report states, “The extremely high income level of Northern Virginia compared to the national average and central location of GMUA in Northern Virginia, combines to make GMUA one of the most attractive new facilities built in recent years.” This motto and business plan paid off. EagleBank Arena has proudly hosted events for artists like Bruce Springsteen and Keith Urban as well as family sporting events like WWE and the Harlem Globetrotters.
The arena now stands as a pillar of family entertainment in the Northern Virginia Community and has intrinsically tied George Mason University to the area’s culture. A high point in recent memory would be the 2006 NCAA season which saw George Mason make a March Madness run all the way to the Final Four. Hopefully, the team can reach those heights again soon.
Joseph Moore is an undergraduate history student and member of the class of 2023 at George Mason University who has lived in Fairfax his whole life. In addition to history, he is also studying film, media, and communication at GMU.
Please use the following as a suggested citation:
Joseph Moore, "An Inside Look at the History of George Mason's Arena," Mapping the University, Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media, George Mason University (2022): <https://mappingtheuniversity.rrchnm.org/narratives/gmu-arena/>.
Board of Visitors Records, Special Collections and Research Center (SCRC), George Mason University, Box 5, Folder 6, May 13, 1981. ↩︎
Board of Visitors Records, Special Collections and Research Center (SCRC), George Mason University, Box 5, Folder 10, March 10,1982. ↩︎
Board of Visitors Records, Special Collections and Research Center (SCRC), George Mason University, Box 5, Folder 11-12, May 12, 1982 and September 22, 1982. ↩︎
Board of Visitors Records, Special Collections and Research Center (SCRC), George Mason University, Box 5, Folders 16, 18, 20, January 26, 1983, May 11, 1983, and September 14, 1983. ↩︎
Board of Visitors Records, Special Collections and Research Center (SCRC), George Mason University, Box 6, Folders 4, 7, 9, 11, 17, 18,January 11, 1984, April 11, 1984, June 20, 1984, November 14, 1984, September 11, 1985, and November 20, 1985. ↩︎