A Taste For Suites?

Um Seeking Buyers For New Luxury Seating At Byrd

August 06, 2009|By Jeff Barker | Jeff Barker,jeff.barker@baltsun.com

COLLEGE PARK -- Last season, luxury seating at the University of Maryland's aging football stadium was a work in progress. Fans could look past the scaffolding and see the modernized version of Tyser Tower - a concrete, brick and glass structure that will house 64 suites - beginning to take shape on Byrd Stadium's south side.

Five weeks from the home football opener, the suites and mezzanine seating are nearing completion inside and below the five-story tower, giving the 59-year-old stadium a more contemporary look.

Now Maryland just needs to find buyers - a task made more challenging by the recession.

The suites are being completed when the team's ticket sales are down and many college and professional programs are feeling pinched by the economy. Season ticket sales have fallen to 24,894 from 27,110 at this time last year - an 8.1 percent dip.

The luxury tower is targeted for completion about two weeks before the Sept. 12 home opener against James Madison. The university says it has sold 40 of the 64 suites and 345 of the 539 mezzanine seats, of which 440 are new.

In mid-June, the athletic department began offering suite rentals on a per-game basis, hoping that the single-Saturday experience will induce more customers to sign long-term leases. The team finished 8-5 last season.

"Given the economic struggles many of our fans are facing, we are pleased with where we are on season tickets, suites and mezzanine seats," said Brian Ullmann, a senior associate athletics director.

The athletic department has been aggressively promoting the seats. It has held four events so far with prospective buyers.

Football coach Ralph Friedgen is among those appearing at the sales programs. Friedgen shows a video highlighting the team's young talent - implying that the team has a solid core for the future.

Friedgen emphasizes the advantages of being inside the suites, noting, for example, that two of last season's home victories were accompanied by driving rain. There are model suites at Tyser Tower and Comcast Center.

The cost of a typical suite ranges from $40,000 to $50,000 annually. Typical per-game rentals range from $6,500 to $10,000 and include 24 game tickets, six parking passes and some food and beverages.

Annual mezzanine seats range from $800 to $2,000, not including the ticket price of $295.

Experts agree it is a challenging climate for big-ticket sports items.

"It is the case that we are experiencing difficulty across the country - pros and colleges - selling tickets," UMBC economics professor Dennis Coates said. "It seems unlikely to me that this is a turning away from sports as much as it is bad economic times. Companies laying people off have a hard time justifying $40,000 to $50,000 for a suite."

Not all the suites are being leased by businesses.

Rick Jaklitsch, a trial attorney from Annapolis, said he split a $40,000-a-year suite with friends.

"I put 24 buddies into the suite and everybody bought a share," Jaklitsch, 50, a Maryland graduate, said. "A share is only $1,666. You put some fun people into the suite that you want to hang out with on a Saturday and it's incredibly affordable."

Maryland, which opens training camp Monday, is among the last schools in the Atlantic Coast Conference to provide luxury suites. Duke still doesn't offer them. Wake Forest opened 22 suites at the beginning of last season. They are sold out, the school said last Thursday.

Maryland decided last year to permit beer and wine sales in the new suites but will still not sell the beverages anywhere else in the stadium. There are caps on beer and wine purchases. For example, a suite of 24 can have no more than 96 beers. Suite holders aren't permitted to bring their own beer or wine.

Besides suites, the tower will house a kitchen, press box, television and radio booths and football coach boxes. The more than $50 million project is part of Maryland's effort to modernize Byrd Stadium.

Byrd ranks ninth among the 12 Atlantic Coast Conference stadiums in seating capacity (51,500). The stadium is the sixth oldest in the ACC.

Maryland has said it intends eventually to add as many as 8,000 more seats - raising capacity to about 60,000 - and lower the field to improve sight lines for the closest rows. There is no timetable for that work.

Wake Forest and other ACC schools have expanded their stadiums recently. Friedgen has often said Maryland needed to keep pace to continue to entice recruits and fans.

The only problem with upgrading one section of the stadium - in this case, the south side - is that it can make other sections seem outdated by comparison.

"I wish we had a chance to do the other side," Friedgen said.

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