Funny, isn't it, how USAir Arena suddenly is totally inadequate?

June 13, 1994|By Phil Jackman

A couple of years ago, a snappy new building arose adjacent to the front door of the USAir Arena (still known to some as the Capital Centre). It houses Capital Management, which runs several arenas here and elsewhere, plus some of the offices of the Washington Bullets and Caps.

This past season, despite gathering up their usual 50-plus defeats, the Bullets averaged 16,000 patrons per game, so there was no need for the NBA to send along a check for $750,000 to help out with the losses as happened in the past.

The Capitals lost a little attendance no doubt due to the treadmill they've been on indefinitely, but have averaged at least 16,000 per contest for years besides additional dates occasioned by participation in the playoffs each spring.

With healthy and constant jumps in ticket prices, not to mention parking fees and charges at the concession stands, things appeared to be going well for Abe Pollin, owner of the whole shooting match, including the buildings. And this was verified when a $20 million improvement program for the 20-year-old edifice was announced.

Then, almost as if by magic, the "Black Hole" hard by the Washington Beltway on what was once public land, is totally inadequate. Suddenly, everybody wants to build an arena for Pollin's play things.

Forgotten is which magnanimous politician or appointee of same started the ball rolling on what amounts to Pollin's behalf. It was probably our lame-duck governor and his stadium authority, who envisioned a hoops and hockey emporium as some sort of substitute for a football stadium promised the NFL if it ever condescended to return here.

Maybe someone overlooked the fact that Baltimore and environs stopped being a "basketball town," at least one providing the support that the NBA had come to expect of its franchises, two decades ago. As far as hockey is concerned, forget it, the town could only come up with 80 percent of the support needed to maintain an AHL team.

It did get the business types down in Washington on the stick, however, and looking to improve an area on the decline, they formulated a proposal. Pollin appeared to get everything he wanted out of these private citizens, the main thing being he didn't want the District of Columbia involved in the talks.

A spokesman for the Federal City Council and the Washington Chamber of Commerce was "very confident" of securing a preliminary agreement for the $150 million, glass-front arena a couple of blocks from the D.C. Convention Center on the edge of Chinatown proximate to three Metro subway stops.

He must have forgotten that the guy with a service to sell, unappealing as it might be on occasion, is conducting what amounts to an auction and Pollin's certainly not going to go with an opening bid.

Not with Governor Schaefer, on the horn from London, telling his underlings here to "keep the Bullets and Capitals here in Maryland." And Prince George's County executive Parris Glendening promising anything, including a subway stop, to keep things as they have been for the last 20 years.

From a big saddle-like structure in the woods surrounded by country roads years ago, when no one could figure out which town the Cap Centre resided in, Landover or Largo, the area is booming with a couple of industrial parks, shopping centers, a theme park and improved roads.

For years, the fact that there was no public transportation to Landover was no more than a minor flaw since an overwhelming majority of the fans come from the Maryland and Virgina communities ringing the beltway. When you stop and consider a prime seat at an athletic event goes for at least $35, chances are a person springing for say two, three or four seats on a season-ticket basis is up to providing transportation.

Back when the arena improvement program was announced, the thinking was that some of it would go toward upgrading the structural integrity of the building. The bulk, though, figured to correct the mistakes Pollin's own building firm and the architect made originally.

A common complaint these days is that professional franchises need income from luxury boxes to be competitive in today's costly sports market. Pollin seemed to foresee this decades ago, so where did he decide to put the high-income suites? The absolute worst place they could go, up hanging from the roof, about six miles from center ice and center court. Not surprisingly, a lot of those luxury boxes have been dark for years.

In other words, some jurisdiction is not going to end up underwriting Pollin's original mistakes, but will provide a grandiose, state-of-the-art (don't you just hate that term?) edifice there doesn't seem to be a crying need for. Yes, Virginia, your turn to come a-courting.

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