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Most ACC Tickets: Booster Seats

Big Donors Will Fill Up MCI Center During Tournament

By Liz Clarke
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, March 5, 2005; Page A01

Nike will provide the jerseys and hefty-sized sneakers for 10 of the 11 teams in next weekend's Atlantic Coast Conference men's basketball tournament at MCI Center. But the apparel giant's Washington-based lobbyist is on a waiting list for tickets to the event, scrambling for enough passes to satisfy the hoop dreams of Nike's many friends on Capitol Hill.

"It's a very tough ticket -- even for us at Nike!" says Brad Figel, the company's director of government relations.

Signs point to many Maryland fans being left out of MCI Center during the ACC tournament. (Jonathan Newton - The Washington Post)

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The Washington-based law firm Arent Fox represented Washington Wizards owner Abe Pollin during construction of MCI Center, but that was not enough to get its partners or its clients into the firm's luxury suite for the four-day event, which starts Thursday. To access its box for the tournament, the firm would have had to pony up $24,000, so Chairman Marc L. Fleischaker demurred. "That's a lot of extra money," he said this week.

When it comes to landing tickets to the tournament, Washington's well-heeled and well-connected are no match for college basketball's biggest boosters -- the Super Rams of North Carolina, the Silver Chiefs of Florida State or the eponymous Iron Dukes.

Tickets to the ACC tournament have been tough to get for decades. There hasn't been a public sale since 1966. Instead, the tickets are controlled by each school's athletic fund-raising arm -- the University of North Carolina's Rams Club, for example, or Duke University's Iron Dukes -- which dangle them as bait to land hefty donations from boosters to fund athletic scholarships, bankroll stadium renovations and, in some cases, sweeten the compensation packages for million-dollar coaches.

But two factors have converged this season to create college basketball's perfect storm, making tickets more prized than usual.

First, the ACC added new members Miami and Virginia Tech, which means tickets must now be split among 11 schools instead of nine. And second, MCI Center is smaller than the venues that typically host the tournament -- it has nearly 4,000 fewer seats than the 23,500-seat Greensboro (N.C.) Coliseum, the 2004 ACC tournament host.

As a result, ACC schools have seen their allotment of tickets slashed by nearly 500. And as any Economics 101 textbook will testify, scarcity drives demand.

For ACC boosters, it has meant having to dig deeper in their pockets. The Iron Dukes raised the minimum donation to qualify for tournament tickets roughly 25 percent this year, to about $10,000. In some cases, donors accustomed to buying four tournament tickets were cut back to two tickets, while some who bought two tickets last year have been shut out altogether.

Stephen Cella of New Bern, N.C., was among those passed over by his alma mater, North Carolina. Cella qualified for two tournament tickets last year; this year, none.

"We were on that cutting edge of where the line was," said Cella, a 1979 graduate and Rams Club member. "When they play in the smaller arenas, there's just not but so many seats. I guess it's one of the prices of expansion."

For Washington area fans, the tournament's return to the region after an 18-year hiatus is cause for celebration. But it has created a third complication for Maryland's Terrapin Club: More of its members want tickets now that the action is in their backyard. "We're getting squeezed on all three of those fronts: The size of the venue, expansion and the fact that it's at home," says Joe Hull, Maryland's senior associate director for external operations.

Says Matthew Haas, a 1993 Maryland graduate whose family has had four ACC tournament tickets for the last 15 years: "The tickets have become so scarce. It's amazing how many new friends I have!"

The ticket shortage came as no surprise to the ACC's most fervent boosters. The clubs started sending out gently worded letters a year and a half ago, letting members know that conference expansion would cut each school's allotment and that minimum donations to qualify for tickets would rise.

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