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  Luxury, Yes, but Also a Pandora's Box

By Mark Leibovich
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 5, 1997; Page G1

By any reckoning, Legg Mason Inc. would be a prime candidate to own a coveted luxury box at Washington's new MCI Center. The Baltimore brokerage, one of the region's more visible corporate citizens, served as the key financial adviser on the $200 million downtown building.

But when the arena was unveiled Tuesday, there was no Legg Mason box. The company's chief executive, Raymond "Chip" Mason, simply decided that owning one would be too much trouble. He speaks from experience: Legg Mason owns a corporate box at Baltimore's Camden Yards, Mason says, "and running it has practically become a full-time job." Instead, the company is content to advertise and hold season tickets at the new arena.

With the advent of four chic new stadiums replete with snazzy corporate boxes in the Washington area — the MCI Center, Jack Kent Cooke Stadium, Oriole Park at Camden Yards and the Baltimore Ravens field under construction — sports invites have become the hottest local currency for entertaining clients and rewarding employees.

But while corporate boxes are badges of company prestige and prime schmoozing venues, they also pack a hidden litany of headaches. Their owners say that awarding them fairly and efficiently demands a rare mix of organizational, diplomatic and baby-sitting skills — not to mention the sporting acumen to distinguish the relative value of a Wizards playoff ticket against the NBA champion Chicago Bulls vs. an early-season snoozer against the hapless Los Angeles Clippers.

Some ticket-holding companies have even designed computer applications for ticket distribution, elaborate raffles and tie-breaking protocol.

At Legg Mason, two people share the burden of running the company's Camden Yards box, Mason said. One carries out the logistical functions of keeping the tickets, making their availability known and arranging for special food or seating provisions in the box. Another, more senior official is the palace guard in charge of monitoring disputes between employees and ensuring that the box is used for appropriate business entertainment purposes.

In other words, Mason says, "we don't want someone having their children's birthday party up there."

Boxes themselves offer delicate slices of business anthropology. For instance, the large suite owned by the MCI Communications Corp. in the arena that bears its name is divided by a wall. Why? So the company can simultaneously entertain competing clients — or, if need be, Democrats and Republicans.

But, as any athlete, or ticket proprietor, will attest, pressure and intrigue can start long before the game.

"It's a constant challenge to be fair and keep everyone in mind," said Jay Jaffe, owner of Jaffe Associates Inc., a Washington-based public relations firm. Jaffe, whose 35-person firm owns season tickets to the Orioles, Redskins, Wizards and Capitals, delegates the tough logistical work to his executive assistant, Amy Sarosdy, who goes by the unofficial job title of "Ticket Diva."

Sarosdy deploys computer databases to keep track of games, times, opponents and who will be using the tickets. "With the Orioles," she notes, divulging a trade secret, "I prefer to do it in a calendar format."

Proxicom Corp., a Reston Internet service firm, is launching a ticket distribution system on its company intranet. Instead of having an administrator invite a mad scramble with an in-house e-mail, which is how the company previously distributed its tickets, the new system will enable employees to see which games are available. Proxicom owns half-season tickets at Camden Yards as well as boxes at Cooke Stadium and the MCI Center. If the game is available, said chief executive Raul Fernandez, the bidder will receive notice by e-mail. In the event of a tie, he says, tickets are awarded to employees conducting client business.

Companies generally do not wish to disclose — let alone publicize — that they own tickets or boxes, out of concern of offending a spurned client. None of the local teams would release the owners of their corporate boxes. Several company officials would not be interviewed on this topic.

"I would hate to have a client read this and wonder why we haven't invited them to any games," said an executive at a Washington financial company. Julie Holdren, chief executive of Olympus Group Inc., an Alexandria-based Internet services and database integration firm, has refereed major battles over the firm's Baltimore Ravens tickets. Thirty Olympus clients and employees vied for tickets to the game against the rival Pittsburgh Steelers, she says, including one who requested them a year in advance (they eventually went to a prospective client, a division of the Pittsburgh-based U.S. Steel). "Washington loves politics and sports," Holdren said.

This begs the question of why Olympus doesn't hold season tickets to any Washington teams.

Holdren says she's looking into it but has been too busy of late — with, among other things, trying to hire 50 additional employees. It has, however, occurred to her that perhaps an MCI Center box could be a good recruiting tool.

"It would probably be cheaper for us than a headhunter," she said.

Staff writer Mike Mills contributed to this report.

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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