Carl James, executive director of the Sugar Bowl, signed what he hopes will be a "lifetime" contract as Maryland's athletic director yesterday and said his first priority would be selling more football season tickets.

Terms of James' contract were not announced. He said the pact is for more than one year, and sources said his salary would be between $45,000 and $50,000. He will head an inter-collegiate varsity program that includes 21 sports for men and women and operates on a $3 million budget.

At a press conference following his formal approval by the university's board of regents, James said, "I'm concerned about the bottom line" in Maryland athletics.

Faced with inflation and a decrease in student fees because of a projected decline in College Park enrollment, James directed many of his remarks at possible solutions to generating more revenues so Maryland can keep its position as one of the NCAA program operating at a profit. Only 3 percent do.

Jim Kehoe, who retires Sept. 1 as athletic director and will become a part-time consulnt on athletics to the state's enire university system, said yesterday Maryland has 12,500 football season-ticket holders about 5,000 of whom receive their tickets as part of a booster club package. In recent year, Maryland has packed Byrd Stadium with many discount tickets and promotions. Byrd Stadium seats about 45,000.

"When you get a quality product as you have in Maryland football, you don't have to give it away on Saturday," James said. "I'd like to think you'd have to buy a Maryland football ticket in June . . . Alabama has just banked $3 million and has sold every ticket for next season.

James also said he would consider the possibility of putting lights in Byrd Stadium for night games, but he noted the cost may outweigh the potential revenue. He said he also realizes the Terrapins are in competition with pro sports for the entertainment dollar, unlike Duke University where he served five years as athletic director.

Immediately after his press conference, James and his wife Marjorie, a Washington native, returned to New Orleans. James said he was uncertain how soon he would be on the job here because of commitments to the Sugar Bowl, where he is the only fulltime employe.

James, 49, emerged as the regents' top choice among four names submitted by an advisory panel to Robert L. Gluckstern, the university's chancellor. The panel's top choice was Moyer Smith, associate athletic director at North Carolina, with James second.

Sources with close ties to the regents said yesterday Smith never had a chance at getting approval by the regents because he was no experienced enough. Smith, who withdrew his candidacy two weeks ago, has been in athletic administration only four years.

"James is mature and astute enough to fill the duties. There's no question about it," said Jack Scarbath, former Maryland star quarterback and chairman of the regents' athletic committee. "He knows the Atlantic Coast Conference and he has a rapport with the press. He's a natural for our position."

Kehoe's appointment as a consultant came as somewhat of a surprise. Scarbath said Maryland's athletic director for the past nine years would be on an on-call basis to James and to the chancellors of any other campuses in the Maryland system.

"With Carl and Jim, we're getting the best of two worlds," Scarbath said.

In addition to selling more football tickets, James listed other possible avenues of increased revenues: better radio-TV rights fees, increased fund-raising and better guarantees in football and basketball.

He also came out in strong support of women's sports and of non-revenue-producing men's sports.

"I believe strongly in women's athletics," he said. "It's very important . . . to have . . . programs with excellence. I believe in a broad-based intercollegiate program. I hope nonrevenue programs would always be of top quality. Obviously, funding in nonrevenue and women's sports is a difficult thing for all institutions today."

He said he favors keeping a mandatory athletic fee, a controversial issue on campus under Kehoe, but added, "I would hate at any point to pass along any additional costs to the students."

Maryland students will pay a $40 mandatory athletic fee next year. Under a proposed decrease, the number of full-time students enrolled at College Park is expected to drop by about 3,000 during the next four years.