Boise State University students maintain social distance in one of two classrooms opened at ExtraMile Arena. (Courtesy Boise State Arena)

Boise State arena, PAC emerge from shutdown with an academic mission

There are butts in seats once again in ExtraMile Arena at Boise State University, but the draw this week wasn’t Metallica or Elton John, Keith Urban or Blake Shelton — all acts that have played the 13,400-capacity venue, which is home to the school’s men’s and women’s basketball and women’s gymnastics teams.

In response to the coronavirus pandemic, the arena, which in the past has been used for commencement ceremonies, convocations and similar events, has been repurposed to house two classrooms in a physically distanced setting for the school term that began Monday. Also being used this fall for academic purposes — in this case, theater classes — is the Boise, Idaho, campus’ 2,000-plus-seat Morrison Center for the Performing Arts, according to Alyssa Meyer, ExtraMile Arena’s assistant director in charge of marketing and brand development.

A student shows her ID as she enters ExtraMile Arena for class. (Courtesy Boise State University)

ExtraMile typically hosts 10 to 12 concerts and other commercial events each year and has rescheduled all but one of its 2020 bookings to next year. A Jeff Dunham comedy show already rescheduled once is now tentatively slated for Nov. 12, but Meyer said she expects it will be rescheduled to 2021 as well.

For the foreseeable future, the venue will handle 18 classes weekly, attended by an estimated 2,100 students, Meyer said.

“The biggest class we have right now is 250 students,” she said, explaining that most of the classes come in under 200 students. For the larger classes, some students are seated in the mezzanine level, but typically the classes fit into the first level. A total of 798 attended classes in the arena Monday.

Arena Executive Director Lisa Cochran has been preparing for students after it was decided in the spring that the arena would be needed for classroom space if the university opened this fall, Meyer said.

The top challenge was getting the seating configurations in place. Nathan McGregor, the arena’s director of client services and its de facto tech guru, worked with Ticketmaster and the university’s Office of Information Technology to map out the seating arrangements, which can be adjusted based on evolving add/drop data as the semester proceeds, Meyer said.

“We treated it like a distanced concert, so we used our Ticketmaster system and the Ticketmaster team was very instrumental in helping us set up an account management system, where our box office would receive student reports from our registrar’s office and then, looking at capacities of our two classrooms, basically assign each student a seat within the distance map they created,” she said. “That allowed us to ensure that the distancing was going to occur, that we could direct them to a specific entrance and therefore a specific exit so it’s one-flow traffic, and just really kind of wrap our arms around it and make sure that the due diligence was done up front and the students didn’t have to worry about what seat they could or could not sit in.”

The arena hosted a well-attended run of the Cirque du Soleil show “Ova” in February and its most recent show, Paw Patrol Live!, in early March before the coronavirus pandemic forced a nationwide shutdown of venues and events. 

ExtraMile is scheduled to host first- and second-round games of the 2021 edition of March Madness, which would be the arena’s 10th time hosting the NCAA Division I Men’s Basketball Tournament.

Meyer said that, regardless of the nontraditional use of the building, ExtraMile staffers are excited to be hosting the classes.

“The sentiment is super-positive,” she said. “Because we are all event people, we were all excited to get back into doing events, period. So it’s kind of a fun, twofold change. We get back to events, but also we get to serve a new kind of purpose for the campus.”