The University of Maryland yesterday cleared its biggest hurdle to replacing 44-year-old Cole Field House, announcing it has reached a $20 million agreement for its proposed on-campus arena to be named Comcast Center.
If approved by the university's board of regents and the state Board of Public Works, the deal will give Maryland the largest known corporate naming gift for a collegiate athletic facility. It also enables the university to ask the state General Assembly for at least $45 million--an appropriation that Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Clinton) said he expects to be approved.
Under the arrangement, Comcast Corp., a telecommunications and entertainment company based in Philadelphia, will pay $20 million over 10 years to have the naming rights to the proposed 17,100-seat facility for 25 years. In addition, Comcast will provide cable television service for all of the College Park campus's 8,300 dormitory rooms, beginning this fall. Campus president C.D. "Dan" Mote said yesterday that the university will pay $10 per bed in each room per month for the service.
The facility, which Maryland hopes to open before the 2002-03 school year, would be located along the north perimeter of campus, near University Boulevard, and adjacent to intramural athletic fields.
"It has been four years since we started discussions about the project and it has been a long haul," Maryland Athletic Director Debbie Yow said. "But it was worth the effort."
The next step toward building the arena is for the university and the Maryland Stadium Authority, which are working together on the project, to reach a final cost estimate for the arena. Original estimates placed the cost at $90 million, but a statement released yesterday said it will be $101 million, not including any necessary infrastructure improvements.
Once a final estimated cost is determined, the university plans to have legislation introduced on its behalf to the state's General Assembly, asking for the state to fund at least half of the cost of the arena. The 90-day legislative session in Annapolis begins Wednesday, and the assembly is expected to appropriate funds for the arena during the session. If all goes as planned, construction will start this summer.
"Everyone is committed to making it happen," Miller said yesterday. "With the sale of the naming rights, that high bar the state set having been met, I think it is all systems go. There are still many hurdles to overcome, but it is going to become a reality."
In addition to the naming rights for the arena, the university plans to sell the naming rights to the playing floor. Yow said such a sponsorship will fetch a minimum of $5 million and E.J. Narcise, a representative of SFX Sports Group, which helped broker the Maryland-Comcast deal, said it could be worth up to $10 million. (Maryland officials originally had been using a New Jersey-based firm called ISI to help them find a naming-rights donor; ISI has since been acquired by SFX.)
"There is a good lead on the name of the court," Narcise said, acknowledging that Enron Energy Sources of Houston and Discovery Communications of Bethesda have shown interest in being involved in the sponsorship of the proposed arena, possibly with the naming rights to the floor.
The rest of the university's share will be raised through other sponsorships, tax-deductible donations for preferred seating that would be similar to personal seat licenses and the use of some student athletic fees. A small portion of the money could come from the sale of private suites in the arena. Plans for the arena include the construction of 20 suites.
"Clearly we need to raise money for athletics, more money than we have been," Mote said.
The university is considering privatizing the arena's management but Yow said there are no plans to allow professional teams, including an expansion Arena Football League team recently purchased by Washington Redskins owner Daniel Snyder, to use the proposed arena.
In addition to the naming rights, Comcast will receive a private suite with 24 seats, several game tickets and the most prominent signage in the arena. Comcast will not receive any of Maryland's allotted tickets to the Atlantic Coast Conference men's basketball tournament, a source familiar with negotiations said.
Steve Burch, regional senior vice president of Comcast's Mid-Atlantic Region, said he could not assess the deal's value to the company.
"I don't know if we will ever be able to put a dollar figure on it," said Burch, a 1975 Maryland graduate. " . . . I don't know if it will make money [for Comcast], but it will eventually offset the $20 million. But I don't care about that. I didn't go into it for that reason."