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 MCI Center Package

  Upstairs, Downstairs

By Thomas Heath
Sunday, November 30, 1997; Page W22
The Washington Post Magazine

THE BIG TICKET

Sam Chilcote, president of the Tobacco Institute, has four club-level seats at the MCI Center, all purchased by the Tobacco Institute, each costing $7,500 per year.

"It's for business purposes. Definitely. That's the way I do everything," Chilcote says. "The poor working stiff, he can't a game anymore and take the kids because it's too damn expensive."

His business purposes: lobbying and "coalition building." The key: Long division suggests that the price per ticket is $91.46 for each of the 82 games, but by subtracting the value of amenities such as a private concourse, waiter service and wider seats, the MCI Center has declared the face-value per ticket to be $48 -- which is $2 less than the U.S. Senate limit on acceptable gifts.

"In the House, you can't buy them a meal or anything," Chilcote says. "In the Senate, it's up to $50. But you better not buy any hot dogs or Cokes. You can just take them to the game, and that's the night out."

When the $200 million MCI Center opens Tuesday, Stevan Durovic, 51, will stroll four blocks from his office at the Labor Department to Gallery Place, where he will cheer on his NBA Wizards, formerly known as the Bullets, for the 24th straight year. William J. Wilson, 64, a Howard University administrator from Silver Spring, will be there too, probably hosting his friend, U.S. District Judge Alex Williams from Prince George's County. Upstairs in the arena's pricey club seats, NBC News Washington bureau chief Tim Russert from Northwest D.C. will be digging into a bag of his favorite popcorn with his 12-year-old son, Luke. Mark Ordan, 38, of Bethesda, former owner of Fresh Fields groceries, will be nearby with his 7-year-old daughter, Jackie. Downstairs on the floor at center court, Greg Gorham, 38, a software analyst from Falls Church, will be leaning forward to hear the players curse at the referees.

When the NHL Capitals take the ice three days later, John DiGiulian, 50, will drive in from Alexandria with his 6-year-old son, Charlie, and settle in his seats directly behind the penalty box. Just a few rows away, Peter Andrews, 72, and his wife, Joan, will arrive after a short drive from Georgetown. Gerry Mathews, 34, of Lanham, will be in the upper level with her 3-year-old daughter. Travel agency owner Cal Simmons, 46, of Old Town Alexandria, will probably dish off his club seats to clients or to employees.

One arena. Two teams. Two historically different crowds.

THE CHEAP SEAT

Gerry Mathews, who works in the accounting department of a downtown Washington law firm, owns two Caps season tickets, one for her, one for her husband, both up in the MCI Center's nosebleed section, costing, "Let's see," she says, working an adding machine, "1,600 times two is $3,200, that's 41 games, that comes out to about $78 per game for two tickets." Plus soda, popcorn, pretzels, beer. "You're talking $100 a night, easily."

A season ticket holder for 11 years, Mathews calls this her "make-or-break season." On the downside: being downtown late at night, ticket prices that keep escalating, and how different the MCI Center will feel from the US Airways Arena.

"How do I put this nicely?" she says. "I don't know how to put this nicely. Let's put it this way. The atmosphere, I feel, is going to go from a friendly family atmosphere to a corporate suit-and-tie atmosphere, and I'm with that from 9 to 5."

On the plus side: "Have you ever been to a hockey game?" she says. "A really good one?"

The Wizards generally appeal to a group of young professionals from 25 to 34 who are more diverse than their hockey counterparts, according to studies done for Abe Pollin, owner of both teams. One third of the Wizards patrons are African American, drawn mostly from Prince George's County. More than a third are women, slightly below the NBA's league-wide average of 40 percent. Slightly more than half of the patrons come from Maryland, a third come from Virginia, and 13 percent come from the District.

The Capitals, on the other hand, have played to a virtually all-white audience from the Maryland and Virginia suburbs that is slightly older than the Wizards crowd. Both groups are well educated, but the Capitals crowd is wealthier than the NBA fans, probably because it includes slightly older patrons who tend to have more money as a result of working longer. About a third of Capitals fans earn more than $75,000 a year; only a quarter of Wizards fans earn that much.

Last season the Wizards averaged 17,089 fans a game compared with 15,762 for the Capitals. The Wizards have nearly 1 1/2 times as many season ticket holders, averaging about 10,000 compared with about 7,000 for the Capitals. The basketball team drew four times as many television viewers as the Capitals last year, according to Home Team Sports television. But sports marketing experts say that the Capitals enjoy a tight, fiercely loyal fan base while the Wizards have had a broader, softer following that is more susceptible to the whims of a won-loss record.

"When you get to hockey, the fans seem to be pretty loyal . . . you're talking about a more suburban, family-oriented appeal . . . mom, dad and the kids," says Bruce Zalbe, president of Bethesda-based Hot Events, a sports and entertainment marketing firm. "The hockey fans are dressed nicely, but more casual. Basketball is much more corporate . . . suits and ties because they are doing more corporate entertaining."

Sports marketers say one reason the NBA has a more corporate atmosphere is because executives who call the shots on luxury suites and club seats grew up playing hoops instead of hockey. Like Robert Pincus, president of Franklin National Bank, which sponsors the college basketball Franklin Classic December 7-8: "My bank is sharing a suite, and I bought club seats with some friends. I basketball more, but I see both as a great form of customer entertainment."

The corporate presence is likely to increase as the teams leave the US Airways Arena in suburban Landover for the glass-and-steel MCI Center. The very structure of the building, with its 109 luxury suites priced from $100,000 to $175,000 and the 3,000 club seats that cost $7,500 apiece, demands that wealthy people buy the tickets.

"The crowd will change," says Wilson, who is assistant treasurer at Howard. "They are catering to a downtown corporate crowd, and less of the pure fans from the suburbs are going to follow the teams downtown. Not only will you see more people from corporations, but they are going to be the ones in the best seats."

DiGiulian has already seen change in the first rows surrounding the US Airways Arena rink, where longtime fans have been replaced by business people, many of whom have a limited knowledge of hockey.

"There used to be more individuals in those seats, but now it's a lot more beer and wine distributors and that sort of thing," DiGiulian says. "There are different people every time."

Even the general seating and upper level "cheap seats" aren't cheap anymore. Wizards and Capitals tickets have both doubled in price over the last three years, putting Wizards seats at $19 to $75 a game, while the Capitals' are $19 to $60.

A sports junkie who also owns season tickets to the Orioles and to Georgetown University basketball, NBC's Russert says that Washington's pro basketball team has always attracted "a good cultural and racial mix. You see people from media and politics and the business world. Lifelong fans who teach school and drive trucks. People have a great time there." Even with the higher prices, Russert says, the downtown games "will hopefully become a gathering spot for people who were unable to make the trek to Landover."

Thomas Heath is a Post Sports reporter.

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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