Agonizing over choicest seats

Biggest contributors to Maryland arena don't make decision lightly

College Basketball

May 21, 2002|By Christian Ewell | Christian Ewell,SUN STAFF

COLLEGE PARK - Picking one's Gucci seats at the University of Maryland's new sports arena is a surprisingly gut-wrenching exercise.

The Terrapin Club's 24 biggest contributors found this out yesterday as they peered at a seating chart for the Comcast Center.

Amid the hum of front-end loaders working on the big building, these folks stepped out of luxury cars and into a trailer before deciding where they would sit when the basketball season starts next fall.

They walked back out into the sunny day with smiles on their faces while carrying parting gifts of red pullover windbreakers and letters confirming their seat placements. But it hadn't been a carefree exercise.

"It was like a draft - even though you're picking fourth or fifth, it's very strategic," said 71-year-old Gerald Birnbach of Potomac, a furniture company executive and a club member for 35 years, who picked fourth.

The university declined to reveal which donor selected first, but Ravens minority owner Stephen Bisciotti picked second, followed by investment firm executive Ken Brody and former business school dean Bill Mayer, who share a season-ticket package.

Birnbach entered the white trailer at the north end of campus with his two sons, Bruce, 43, and Tom, 35, both Maryland graduates who remember watching the 1970 Final Four at Cole Field House.

"It means a lot because we've been supportive of the team and the university," the eldest Birnbach said. "I have 12 grandchildren who are Maryland fans and it keeps the whole family together. That's what we like."

The process of seating the Terrapin Club members - through individual appointments - will continue through the summer, with Maryland athletic fund-raising chief Josiah C. Hull expecting it to end by mid-August.

It's at the point when many of the 600 ticket holders from last year who received calls in late April for increased contributions - of money, season-ticket purchases or membership referrals - will discover whether they'll qualify to buy tickets for games at Comcast this season.

"Today went well," Hull said. "The people who came in today were some of our most generous supporters and they seemed genuinely excited."

Eight prime tickets will go to each of those who have donated a minimum of $100,000 to the campaign to fund the 17,100-seat facility, which will open in October.

Every 15 minutes for six hours during the next three working weeks, each person or group in this category - known as building partners - will approach the seating chart. Those who ponied up $500,000 or more are guaranteed two courtside seats, followed by eight seats located in a section above the 10 rows where the students will sit.

Since these were to be the Birnbach group's seats for the next two years, at least, they needed to choose wisely. After the courtside seats, does one take all the seats in one row? Does one split them in rows of four? Is it best to be on the opposite side from the bench or facing it? So many choices.

"You just don't know," Tom Birnbach said. "A lot of it is a gamble."

Said Bruce Birnbach: "At the same time, it's in the first row, center court. It's not that big of a decision."

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