Bells and Whistles
Sunday, November 30, 1997; Page W28
The Washington Post Magazine For anyone uneasy with this country's tendency to confuse professional sports with real life, know this about the MCI Center: It's Brave New World meets "Wide World of Sports."
The $200 million, state-of-the-art indoor coliseum goes beyond just moving megabuck sports into the geographical center of the nation's seat of government. "We want to encourage our neighbors to use this as a community meeting place," says Dale Kaetzel, vice president for marketing of Centre Management, which runs the arena, "a place people will want to come every day of the year."
There, from 9 a.m. until 10 p.m. every day, you'll find enough bread and circuses to make $100 sneakers seem cheap by comparison.
Tourists to the nation's capital will be Tourmobiled to the arena's MCI National Sports Gallery, where an archway proclaims, "America: A Nation of Sports Lovers." There, instead of the Washington, Jefferson and Lincoln monuments they'll find elsewhere in the city, the monuments will include Mike Tyson, according to exhibit designer Matt Rothan, and in the Sportscasters Association Hall of Fame, Howard Cosell.
Yet visitors won't just be exposed to professional sports figures, they'll interact with them electronically. You'll be able to shoot baskets against a virtual Chris Webber while the Wizards star talks authentic NBA trash. You'll be able to pitch a virtual baseball game against Ken Griffey Jr. "You'll enter an NFL huddle . . ." says Marc Goldman, Centre Management's public relations director. "There'll be life-size football players you'll be able to put your arms around and touch."
All this multi-sensory, multi-dimensional, technology-driven sports-themed reality will be available for fees ranging from $2 to $3 a game. Plus admission of $5.50 ($3.50 for children), unless you buy the $9.50 Smart Card ($7.50 for children), which gets you in and buys you one round at each contest.
This brings us to the subject of money, which will rigidly segregate things at the MCI Center. Truly inexpensive tickets will likely be no harder to find than at the Kennedy Center, but well-heeled box holders and threadbare standees there, at least, can park in the same garage, enter the same doors and eat at the same restaurants.
Not so at the MCI Center. The 1,320 high rollers watching events from the $1 million-for-10-years Founders Suites and the $100,000-to-$175,000-a-year luxury suites or the 3,000 premium price club seats will be provided separate parking, enter a separate entrance and dine in separate restaurants barred to the arena's 15,680 ordinary ticket holders. They will even have a separate concourse all their own.
Hoi polloi, however, will have readier access to what arena brochures describe as "high-touch activity zones." Among these may prove to be the Velocity Grill, described in arena literature as "an upscale sports-themed restaurant" where "historical and current sports images will merge on large video screens, wall dividers, large-scale video walls and individually controlled screens at tables."
A key feature of the Velocity Grill will be a glass floor through which patrons can look directly down on the Wizards' warm-up court. On-court Wizards, however, will be able to look up through the floor to the grill. Could this amount to architectural harassment of female patrons? "We've had a lot of questions about that," Goldman says. "The glass will have cracks and distortions in it where you walk on it so players won't be able to look up women's dresses."
Not all arena attractions will focus exclusively on sports. Though Modell's Sporting Goods Team Store will peddle team jackets, coffee cups and other merchandise, the Discovery Channel will also have a store: Destination Washington, DC. Arena literature describes it as designed to "merge destination-based retailing with a content-rich interactive environment."
Customers will travel in an egg-shaped elevator from a sub-ocean world on the lowest of its floors to a middle area focused on the Earth's surface to a top floor focused on the sky and outer space. "Themed realms," these are called. On each level, customers will be able to purchase "unique products" appropriate to those realms, "each . . . with its own special story or pedigree."
Those patronizing the arena will at some point encounter a monster -- actually the Discovery Channel store's life-size replica of the largest Tyrannosaurus rex ever found.
Symbolists may make of that what they will.
Ken Ringle is a Post Style reporter.
© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company