Nothing `amateur' about Terps ticket plan

September 11, 2001|By Michael Olesker

COUNT ON this: Somewhere in College Park, where varsity basketball is still amusingly referred to as "amateur," a young scholar whose principal academic skill is the jump shot has read his morning newspaper and begun to feel like a chump.

And the people who pay money to watch him play are feeling their own uneasiness.

The athlete feels like a chump because all his college life, he has been playing ball for no other profit than tuition, board, bed, books, a summer job involving no heavy lifting, the affections of grateful alumni, a little prime-time TV exposure, and a long-shot chance at a professional playing career - but no serious money until then.

The people who pay money to watch him play feel like chumps because big-time sports has now found a brand-new way to pick their pockets.

As The Sun's Jon Morgan reported the other day, the University of Maryland will open its sparkling new basketball arena next year with a sparkling new set of demands upon those wishing to step inside the joint. A coveted midcourt seat, for example, will likely require at least a $100,000 donation to the building campaign. A seat slightly off-center will require a smaller donation - maybe only $50,000 - to the school's booster club.

The word "donation" is used in the same way the phrase "personal seat license" is used by such corporations as the Baltimore Ravens. It is a euphemism designed to disguise actual extortion.

Around here, some of us are old enough to remember public outrage when teams such as the Baltimore Colts insisted on including preseason games (or, what used to be more honestly called "exhibition" games) in season-ticket packages. Now, such things are taken for granted; if fans don't want to ante up, they risk losing the team to some other city hungry for a ballclub.

Around here, some will remember when you didn't have to pay merely for the "privilege" of buying a pro football season ticket. Now, it's a given; you don't want to shell out a few grand for a PSL, you risk getting shut out of all ticket possibilities.

Around College Park, some will remember when varsity sports were presumed to be entertainment primarily for students and alumni. The students got in easily and for free. Actually, the cost was built into tuition payments, but they could march into Cole Field House, or Byrd Stadium, just by showing their student ID cards.

The new basketball arena will have 17,000 seats - of which 4,000 have been set aside for students, and about another 1,000 for faculty and staff. Of the remaining 12,000 seats, 1,600 prime location seats will go to so-called Building Partners who merely have to hand over the following: a one-time donation of $25,000 to $1 million (the higher the donation, the better the seat), plus an annual donation to the Terrapin Club - and then, the cost of purchasing the actual tickets.

The remaining seats will go to Terrapin Club members given locations based on "Terpoints" - earned by the size of annual donations, length of club membership and referrals of new chumps - er, members.

Much of this will infuriate fans - including loyal alumni - accustomed to attending games without having to take out second mortgages on their homes. But breathtaking as the new costs are, they are clearly part of a modern pattern in which fans pay through the nose or risk - what?

With the pros, there's always the risk that the "home" team will look for greener pastures. Around here, we've certainly seen them go and come. With the colleges, it's a little different. The University of Maryland is not going to move its basketball team to Indianapolis.

Instead, there's a different kind of pressure. The chump who's blowing a hundred grand gets ticked off when the team isn't sufficiently entertaining, when it stumbles before reaching the Final Four. He's leaning on the Terrapin Club leaders, who have to lean on the athletic director, who leans on the coach, who ups the pressure on his athletes.

There's too much at stake for failure - and never mind that it's 20-year-old kids feeling the increased pressure.

Now imagine one of these kids waking up in his dormitory room this week. He knows the new arena's being built, but until now, he hasn't stopped to think about the $101 million price tag - or the ticket prices, or the alumni donations attached to tickets, or the attached TV revenue. (CBS will pay the NCAA a reported $6 billion over 11 years, beginning in 2003.)

And it occurs to him: All this money to watch me - how come none of it's coming my way?

How come I've got to go to class, maintain a grade point average, attend practices where the coach is taking out all his heightened pressures on me - and then I'm bringing in all this money that seems to be filling all kinds of pockets but not mine. I feel exploited, the kid will say.

And he'll have a pretty good point - and then we will truly begin to see the cost of "amateur" sports go through the roof.

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