Philadelphia group offers Arena fix-up SMG wants hockey, women's basketball

March 12, 1998|By Jon Morgan | Jon Morgan,SUN STAFF

A Philadelphia-based arena manager is bidding to operate Baltimore's aging downtown arena, promising to fix up the building and draw new attractions -- possibly including a women's basketball team and a minor-league hockey team.

SMG, formerly a component of Spectacor Management Group, submitted one of the two bids opened yesterday by the city to operate the Baltimore Arena. The other bidder is the current manager, Centre Management, which says it would like to bring in new attractions, including a minor-league men's basketball team.

An SMG official said his company's independence from competing arenas, and its national presence in the entertainment industry, could enhance the offerings for fans in Baltimore.

"We have a large portfolio and we understand markets large and small, and we have a track record of making under-performing facilities perform," said Joseph Briglia, SMG vice president and director of business development.

He met recently with Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke and expressed an interest in a range of projects, from managing the arena to investing in it or helping to develop -- possibly with a cash investment -- a new arena for the city, Briglia said.

The company has also talked about Baltimore with the International Hockey League and the women's American Basketball League, two expansion-minded minor leagues that have an interest in the market, he said.

"The building can play in a whole new orbit," Briglia said. "We feel we can bring more national events to the arena."

Schmoke's office had no comment on the bids. The current management contract expires in June. City officials have indicated to the bidders that they will evaluate the bids and conduct interviews with the contestants.

The Baltimore Arena, originally called the Civic Center, opened in 1962 and has been home to many sports franchises, some successful and many not. Schmoke has included a new arena in his long-term plans, hiring a consultant to study 10 possible sites and begin looking at the financing.

Centre Management president Barry Silberman said: "We think that our management has been very good for Baltimore and for the facility, and we look forward to continuing. We do want to continue taking things up a notch."

Centre Management is owned by Washington Sports & Entertainment, whose other properties include the NBA Washington Wizards and NHL Washington Capitals. It also owns the Women's NBA Mystics, who will start play this year in Washington.

All the teams play at the MCI Center in Washington, which Washington Sports & Entertainment built and owns. The company also owns the USAirways Arena in Landover and manages the Patriot Center at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va., and an arena in Cleveland.

Briglia said SMG would be free of any conflict because its nearest facilities are in Richmond, Va., and Pittsburgh, and it doesn't own any sports teams in the area that would compete for fans and dollars.

Silberman said the Baltimore Arena does not compete with the company's other facilities because of its smaller size and its location.

"We feel good standing on our track record," Silberman said.

The nine-team ABL, one of two women's basketball leagues to start in the past two years, is expected to announce an expansion franchise in the next few weeks -- Nashville, Tenn., St. Louis and Tampa, Fla., are finalists -- but could add another team next year, according to spokeswoman Debbie Rosenfeld.

Briglia said he was encouraged in his discussions with the ABL. "The league is looking to expand, and we feel that Baltimore meets their criteria," he said.

The IHL has also shown interest in Baltimore, either through expansion or relocating an existing team. It has worked through a local marketing consultant, Robert Leffler, of the Leffler Agency. Leffler met yesterday with Briglia about SMG investing in an IHL team, as they have done with teams in other leagues that play in arenas they manage.

"I think that the IHL needs a presence in the Northeast. Baltimore is between two NHL markets and has a sophisticated hockey fan base," Briglia said.

SMG would be interesting in investing in a new arena in Baltimore, too, he said. The company, co-owned by Hyatt Hotels & Resorts and the concessionaire ARAMARK, has helped develop other new arenas. SMB says it is the nation's largest operator of public facilities. It manages such well-known venues as the Superdome in New Orleans, Three Rivers Stadium in Pittsburgh and Nassau Coliseum in Uniondale, N.Y.

Silberman said Centre Management would also be interested in helping to establish a new arena for Baltimore, although it would probably not invest in such a project. He said the company is in talks with some sports leagues about coming to Baltimore, including the start-up International Basketball League.

Pub Date: 3/12/98

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