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  At Arena, Business Will Be Star Player

By Paul Duggan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, October 30, 1995; Page A01

For those who can afford them, terrific seats await at the top of the first concourse at the planned MCI Center, future home to the Washington Bullets and the Washington Capitals. For a minimum lease term of five seasons, you'll have your own living room -- an "executive suite" -- only 20 or so rows above the action.

The price?

Per year, for the best suites, it's $175,000 -- which doesn't include the in-house caterer's bill for delivering food and keeping the wet bar stocked.

And if an executive suite doesn't fit your budget, check out the second concourse. There you'll find 3,000 "Clubseats" priced at $7,500 each a year. You'll have to buy at least four, for a minimum of four years, but you won't have to rub elbows with ordinary ticket holders, and you'll get extra leg room and wait-staff service (eventually at the push of a button), and more.

"You'll share a private concourse with the region's other movers and shakers," says a marketing letter for the seats, "and you'll have an ideal view of the action from about 25 rows up."

But what about . . . y'know, the atmosphere of the place?

Will the movers and shakers GET LOUD?

Will they show up wearing Caps jerseys with their favorite players' names and numbers on the back?

Will they razz opponents? Abuse refs? Spill beer now and then?

Don't bet on it, said Stephen Greyser, a Harvard Business School professor who has studied arena marketing strategies. "There's been a corporatization of the financial support of arenas, meaning the names given to them, and also a corporatization of what you might call their look and feel -- the people in them."

Of course, there's nothing revolutionary about that. Luxury seating has been commonplace in major sports venues for years. It's just that developers keep expanding on the concept with each new arena they build -- and Abe Pollin, the Bullets and Capitals' owner, is no exception.

As Pollin's vice president for sales, Rick Moreland, put it: "Certainly sports has come to a stage where it's now a corporate entertainment avenue. Like the theater, like a restaurant, like golf, taking clients to sporting events has proved a very successful way to do business."

Like other sports moguls involved in similar projects, Pollin, who is privately financing the $175 million MCI Center, needs to show prospective lenders that the downtown arena, with approximately 20,000 seats, will make money after it opens in fall 1997. And what better way to guarantee a long-term flow of serious cash than by selling thousands of high-priced seats on a multiseason basis years in advance?

But in doing so, observers said, Pollin also has guaranteed a shift in the nature of live indoor sports here, tailoring the arena toward people who are more likely to be found schmoozing with business associates during games than cheering what happens on the ice or the hardwood.

"We will always have low-priced tickets for families," Pollin promised recently. "I don't think that will be a problem. We're going to make sure we take care of them."

Still, under the planned layout, if the MCI Center were full, the movers and shakers in the club seats and executive suites would number more than 4,000, or more than 20 percent of the crowd.

Blue-collar Baltimoreans decried the yuppification of that city's baseball crowds after the Orioles left their neighborhood stadium for a state-of-the-art ballpark downtown. Likewise, some worry that Pollin's downtown MCI Center -- convenient for the city's power elite -- will become as much a place to be seen and do business as to watch a game and that admission eventually will be priced accordingly.

The arena, to be built in the 600 block of G Street NW, near Chinatown, "has the potential to be a tremendous plus for downtown, but at the same time, {it has} the negative potential of pricing out the average resident and the low-income resident," said Terry Lynch, director of the Downtown Cluster of Congregations and a member of Mayor Marion Barry's arena task force.

"You want this facility and the neighborhood to be family oriented as opposed to corporate lawyer oriented," he said.

Greyser, who has kept a close eye on new arenas across the country, wondered about Pollin's pledge to make plenty of affordable seats available.

"Every one of these places will promise you they're going to reserve a certain number of tickets to bring in poor people from wherever," Greyser said. Although such promises may be sincere, he said, "economic demands inevitably make it a very, very limited proposition."

Caps and Bullets season-ticket holders will occupy the first 20 or so rows around the arena. That's the first concourse, to be topped by the first tier of 28 executive suites. The second concourse will include 12 suites and 3,000 club seats. Seventy suites will comprise the entire third concourse. Up near the ceiling, the fourth concourse will have both season and individual-game ticket holders, said Dan Cohen, director of premium seating at the arena.

At USAir Arena, single-ticket prices range from $12 to $45 for Capitals games and from $11 to $37 for Bullets games. Basketball season ticket plans range from $451 to $1,517 a year, and from $492 to $1,435 for hockey. No one knows what ticket prices will be in the new arena, officials said, though they are certain to be higher.

Sam Katz is a Pennsylvania financier who has been involved in several arena projects but is not formally involved in the MCI Center. He said Pollin's focus on deep-pocketed ticket buyers is necessary if the Washington area is to have a first-rate arena.

"Sure, there's a class distinction between the people who sit in the cheap seats and the people who don't, but there always has been," he said. "What's happened at {the MCI Center} is those 3,000 club seats and those suites have helped pay for a better building. The sight lines will be better, the acoustics will be better, the scoreboards will be more technologically sophisticated. The whole entertainment package is better."

Not that USAir Arena is some relic of a bygone era -- a circa-1920s warehouse of a building like the old Boston Garden, hot and cramped and smelling of stale beer -- but neither is the Landover arena a destination of choice for the well-heeled. Built in the early '70s, its 40 luxury suites are in nosebleed territory, about as high above courtside as you can get and still be in the building, and the closest thing to Clubseats are its 16 "portal boxes," holding 10 to 12 people each.

By contrast, the MCI Center, besides the club seats, will feature 110 executive suites, all of them much closer to the game than those at USAir Arena. Priced from $100,000 to $175,000 a year, and with a bar, refrigerator, two TV monitors, a choice of furniture combinations and a sliding-glass door leading to an outside seating area, each suite, depending on its location, will hold 12 to 16 clients . . . er, fans.

And they'll be yours not just for regular season and playoff games but for all arena events -- rock concerts, college sports, tractor-pulls, you name it.

With club seats, you'll get every Bullets and Capitals regular season home game, plus head-of-line priority to buy playoff tickets and -- as set forth in your four-page club seats contract -- "tickets . . . for other Arena events, excluding certain premium sporting events, concerts or other Arena events, not to exceed four (4) Arena events during each Term year as determined by Licensor and as more particularly set forth in the License Agreement, during the Term."

Pollin's organization, Washington Sports and Entertainment, won't disclose how many suites and club seats have been sold.

"They're going very well," said Wes Unseld, the company's executive vice president. But the organization does make clear for whom the comfy seats are meant.

"Different people use them for different purposes, but the reality of the situation is, it's a place where people can conduct and develop business opportunities," Cohen said.

"You'll have upwards of 200 opportunities a year to take a number of different clients to an event," he said. "Now, certainly these suites aren't inexpensive. But I tell people -- and I truly believe this -- that it generates an excellent return on investment when used properly."

Staff writer Stephen C. Fehr contributed to this report.

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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