Future is now at MCI Center Arena: The attractions only start with the Wizards and Capitals at Washington's 21st century sports and entertainment complex.

December 02, 1997|By Jon Morgan | Jon Morgan,SUN STAFF

WASHINGTON -- You may, with a ticket, be able to catch a basketball game at the MCI Center. But it will take some work. And a lot of focus.

First, you'll have to get past the enormous "team store" crammed with sports-related merchandise, a piano-sized hockey puck and flickering television monitors. Then you need to steer clear of the three-story Discovery Channel store, with its replica Tyrannosaurus Rex and sweeping, multimedia tour of spaceship Earth.

Then, it's a matter of breaking free from the one-on-one basketball game against a virtual Chris Webber, and resisting the temptation to wrap your fingers around a bat once wielded by Babe Ruth, so you can get a clear shot at your seat -- and the chance to take in the actual reality of 10 tall guys with a basketball.

The MCI Center opening tonight in downtown Washington is far more than the home court for Abe Pollin's twin teams, the NBA Wizards and NHL Capitals. It's a $200 million monument to the future of sports -- a future in which, experts tell us, it will take more than skillful puck-handling, shapely cheerleaders and slam-dunk contests to get us to come to a game.

Elements of this notion can be seen in almost every stadium and arena opened in the 1990s, including Oriole Park, with its Eutaw Street pavilion and Camden warehouse bistros. More recently, Cleveland's Gund Arena was built with a mall-style food court that's open even when the arena is dark.

But the MCI Center, with 25 times as many square feet devoted to retailing and restaurants as its NBA court, takes the idea beyond what anyone else has tried. And it has captured the attention of a sports industry eager to adopt innovations if they prove successful.

"I believe this will set a standard for other facilities to emulate," said Rick Horrow, a sports consultant and president of Horrow Sports Venture in Miami. "Teams are realizing that a facility allows for a true recreational opportunity that transcends the sporting event itself."

Transcends and perhaps overwhelms. The MCI Center aims to attract tourists and visitors year-round, even when the home teams are away. Elements of the building will be open from early morning to late night, selling food, tours and admission to its attractions. No fad has been overlooked, from pricey cigars to boutique microbrews, high-tech "smart cards" and the World Wide Web.

"Mr. Pollin wanted this to be seen as not just a sports arena, but a 24-hour entertainment facility. 'Meet, greet and eat,' he often said, and I think they've delivered," said Susan O'Malley, president of Washington Sports and Entertainment -- the holding company for the Wizards, Capitals and the MCI and US Airways arenas -- whose chairman is Pollin.

Even some of the two dozen traditional concession stands in the concourses will be open from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. weekdays when no events are being held so passers-by can drop in for a bucket of buffalo wings or a soft pretzel.

Among the featured diversions:

The three-level, 20,000-square-foot Velocity Grill will serve lunch, dinner and more than 100 draft beers. There are flat-panel, digital television screens in the booths and electronic, hand-held order and payment devices for the waiters. A textured glass floor provides a view of the Wizards' practice court below. A cigar lounge, with walk-in humidor, is planned.

Multimedia kiosks, called "arenaNet" stations, are dotted throughout the building, allowing visitors to generate digital postcards, log on to the Internet and play sports trivia games.

A patented, digital camera system mounted on the scoreboard suspended from the ceiling at midcourt will take a picture of every fan in every seat, who can then buy the shots mounted on replica tickets as a keepsake.

Modell's Team Store will showcase team-related clothing and trinkets in a massive store equipped with an interactive computer kiosk, satellite feeds and 12 television monitors so shoppers won't miss a minute of, for example, the Illinois-Purdue game.

The Discovery Channel has installed a tour de force of science that starts deep beneath the oceans and launches you into outer space, with plenty of buying opportunities along the way.

The national sports gallery is a sort of Smithsonian Institution meets the "Wide World of Sports." Visitors pay $3.50 (ages 12 and under) to $5.50 and enter through a full-scale replica of a Wrigley Field box office.

Here, fans can buy computerized smart cards (similar to a pre-paid phone calling card) that enable them to try out the various diversions, from virtual skiing with a video-simulated slope to a sportscaster's booth where a tape will be made as they call the game of their choice. Memorabilia and static displays are sprinkled throughout, such as a Joe Jackson bat, a 1909 Honus Wagner card and the robe Muhammad Ali wore at the "Rumble in the Jungle."

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