Terps' new arena still packed house

Colleges: Because of heavy demand for seats, Maryland has had to find creative ways to add basketball tickets at the Comcast Center.

College Basketball

August 23, 2002|By Mike Klingaman | Mike Klingaman,SUN STAFF

Courtside seats are long gone. The rafters are full. People even have dibs on chairs yet to be installed.

The University of Maryland's new basketball arena is still empty, but a few fans are finding there's no place to sit.

In the wake of a national championship and two straight trips to the Final Four, the University of Maryland is scrambling to accommodate a horde of followers as it prepares to open the 17,100-seat Comcast Center.

Season tickets have run out; demand overwhelmed supply. So university officials are squeezing in still more fans by coming up with half-season ticket plans and 290 portable seats.

In some quarters, the gesture is getting a cool response. For Terrapin Club members like Allan Armstrong, the last-minute offer smacks of being demoted from starter to scrub.

"I think we were treated shabbily. On principle, I feel like telling them to eat the tickets - though I know someone else will just step up and take them," says Armstrong, of Columbia. But he is loath to cut ties, burn bridges: "If I don't [take the half-season plan], there's not much chance of my getting back in [the arena] in the future."

He longs for those times in venerable Cole Field House, where, for eight years, the renewal of his two season tickets was as predictable as a Terps home victory over a non-conference foe.

"You almost wish the team would have a losing year, so the fair-weather fans would drop by the wayside and you can get back in there," says Armstrong. He learned this week that he was among the 240 account holders from Cole (of a total 3,164) who lost their spots when Maryland changed its seat-assignment procedure in preparation for opening the new arena.

Construction, which began in May 2000, is virtually complete. Finishing touches are being put on the $101 million facility, set to open to the public Oct. 2. The annual Midnight Madness event is scheduled Oct. 11.

As part of its transition from Cole to Comcast, season-ticket holders ceased to get renewals. Instead, tickets were re-issued en masse, with preference given to Terrapin Club members with the most "Terpoints," a system of measuring loyalty. Deep-pocketed members receive credit for donations; others, for such things as referring new boosters to the club.

After setting aside about 5,000 tickets for students and faculty, and another block for opponents and others, the university turned to its supporters. The people who helped pay to build the facility, called building partners, got 1,600. Boosters got 9,000, which the university doled out based on individuals' Terpoints. Except for building partners, Terrapin Club members will have their ticket status re-evaluated every three years.

To his surprise, Armstrong came up short, even after making a supplemental $800 donation as suggested by school officials to ensure he'd make the cut.

"I thought when I coughed up the $800, I'd get tickets," he says. "I don't entirely blame the university; with them winning a national championship, tickets became a bigger deal than they expected. It probably got beyond Maryland's control. But the initial plan was all wrong. You've got to take care of your season-ticket holders. That's so elemental."

University officials contend they did that. "We gave high priority to longtime supporters. I think we were loyal to those folks," says Dr. Charles Wellford, a criminology professor who served as head of the New Arena Seat Committee. "People may be disappointed, but they weren't mistreated. They've known the rules [of the ticket plan] since 1999; they had the information early."

One supporter who had been shut out at the Terps' old venue sprang into action when he learned what it would take to secure prime seats in the new arena. For three years, Jeffrey Renner has been accumulating Terpoints, recruiting more than two dozen Terrapin Club members. He even organized a golf-and-crab fund-raiser near his home outside Hancock, in western Maryland.

Renner, an alumnus of Allegany (Md.) College, also gave annual donations of about $1,000. His reward: four seats behind the Maryland bench, row 12.

"I paid my dues; I worked hard to get my priority up there," says Renner, who manages an asphalt plant in Hagerstown. "I feel for those who got shut out, but they had the chance to ante up. I think they took the university for granted. They'd had tickets at Cole for so long, they thought they'd be `grandfathered' in.

"It's supply and demand."

Don Vasquez also made it through the door, though he's miffed with the location of his two Comcast Center seats, tucked off in a corner, six rows from the top. To procure them, he donated an extra $750, bringing his 2002 outlay to $1,014.

"I didn't expect the best seats in the house, but these are nowhere near what I've had for 18 years," says Vasquez, of Huntington in Calvert County. The purchasing agent for a fencing company had seats about halfway up in Cole. "I was with this team through the Bob Wade years, the terrible years, when I couldn't give my tickets away."

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