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  The Party Starts at the New Arena

By Roxanne Roberts
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 03, 1997; Page D1

Last night's opening night parties at MCI Center were all about showing off: showing devotion to the Wizards, showing off a million-dollar suite, or showing off a fine, lean body at Washington's newest venue for styling and profiling.

There are different ways to strut your stuff, and they were all on display. For star power, Abe Pollin's suite — where President Clinton watched the first game played here — won hands down. The winner for best view went to the Capital Club, where season ticket holders could see and be seen at the restaurant overlooking the court. But for sheer drama, you couldn't beat the glass staircase and glass floor of the Velocity Grill, where a sweet young thing in a miniskirt could dazzle cigar-smoking patrons.

Wizards owner Pollin threw pre- and postgame celebrations, where guests celebrated his 74th birthday and what they hope will be the rebirth of downtown Washington. The postgame party is for "a small group of 800 of our closest friends," said Pollin.

Suite holders held parties for only a dozen of their closest friends (or best customers), and regular fans cruised the center's bright new halls. The three-story Velocity Grill — complete with 88 television screens — was open to anyone (even without a ticket to the game) who wanted to be part of the scene.

Last night, everything in the grill was on the house — free beer, free food and free cigars. The restaurant is "going to be a big draw," said Raul Fernandez, president of Proxicom, an Internet services company in Reston. "We'll use it to entertain guests and business clients. Capital Centre was tough to get to and from. This is a breeze."

"This is going to be the place to meet before the game," said John McDonnell, vice president of Transaction Network Services, an investor in the grill, who was having a drink while waiting to meet his brother.

The highest rollers were found in the suites, 110 cozy rooms with seats for 12. The suites start at $100,000 a year (20 "founders" paid $1 million for a 10-year lease), and were filled with corporate bigwigs from the worlds of banking, communications and high-technology. Pollin's suite is actually two suites, with a private reception room below complete with his very own elevator. Why not? He owns the joint.

Club level seat holders — season tickets selling for $7,500 — had the option of staying in their purple seats or wandering into the members-only Capital Club. The bar and dinner tables curve around one end of the arena, which allowed these fans to watch the game while everyone else watched them.

"This is the coolest spot in the place," said Terry Eakin. "Clearly." Eakin and three buddies were sitting on the rail for the first seating. The club was full of men in suits and women in minks — not your typical sports apparel. "Fine dining, white tablecloths, good view, good company," said Eakin. There's just one problem: "Our wives may want to come when they see how elegant it is."

It was a big change from USAirways Arena, the former home of the Capitals and Wizards. Opened in 1974 as the Capital Centre, it was an arena from another generation, when the sole function of sports venues was putting on sporting events and the occasional concert.

Showing off was not the primary reason people drove to Landover. There were only two places for fans to strut their stuff at the old arena: the Flight Deck Lounge and the Captain's Club. The most exclusive was the Flight Deck, which served drinks and hot hors d'oeuvres to people with the most expensive season tickets — courtside seats for basketball and rinkside for hockey. Any hungry season ticket holder could buy a buffet-style dinner at the Captain's Club.

The only place the average Joe could hang out was the concourse, which was typically choked with fans standing in food lines or pushing past one another to get to their seats. Styling and profiling opportunities were limited: When not in their seats, most people stood "in the lines waiting to get into the bathrooms or to use the money machine," says Marc Goldman, public relations manager for Centre Management, which operates USAirways Arena and MCI Center.

Glamorous? Hardly.

But new sports arenas are designed to be gathering places — like old town squares or suburban malls — places to hang out, to see and be seen. The owners of Velocity Grill are hoping the restaurant will be the one spot where every fan will mix before, during and after the games. "People want to mingle at these kinds of events," says owner Brian Cohn.

"It's a party place," said Pollin of MCI Center. "Have you seen Velocity? You know that's a party place."

Neal Taylor, an electrician who worked on the lighting for the restaurant, decided to come last night, even though he didn't have a game ticket. "It's an ideal spot to hang out," he said, sitting in a booth with its own TV screen.

The 20,000-square-foot restaurant is the only place in MCI Center where those without game tickets can drink, eat and smoke during games. There's a cigar lounge, a microbrew bar and a glass wall overlooking the Wizards' practice court. Fans from the stands are expected to drift in during the last part of every game when beer sales are cut off in the arena.

Cohn is counting on three bars — not to mention the glass ceiling and staircase — to keep things exciting.

"All the extra frills — it's fantastic," said Denny Ryder of Fairfax. "If tonight is any indication, it's going to be a big success. Now all we need is a Wizards victory."

Ryder got his wish. The Wizards finally won a home game, and everyone at the postgame party (for "a small group of 800 of our closest friends," said Pollin) gave the new arena high marks.

"This is the urban substitute for the golf course," said D.C. Council member Charlene Drew Jarvis. "It's every bit as exciting as I thought — even though the game wasn't the most exciting I've ever seen."

No matter. "What a beautiful day in this neighborhood," said a relieved Wizards President Susan O'Malley. "It was an excellent day."

Staff writer Frank Ahrens contributed to this report.

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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