As Tiger Arena opens, Towson searches for return on investment

School spent $70 million on arena in hopes of bolstering sports program, adding business

June 17, 2013|By Chris Korman, The Baltimore Sun

Towson University's new arena opens to the public Wednesday night when the Harlem Globetrotters tip off the first of three games in three nights.

The traveling basketball troupe is making a special stop — it usually tours in the United States from December to March — to make history at the nearly $70 million arena, which the school calls "the best basketball facility in the Mid-Atlantic."

What Towson officials have been less bold about, so far, is outlining how Tiger Arena may help the athletic department, and the university, raise revenue. While they hope it one day competes with other midsize venues around the region, they plan to take their time getting there.

"We're still figuring out how it is going to work," said Joe Oster, who became the university's chief financial officer in April.

New arenas generally succeed in increasing the owner's ability to generate revenue, said Dennis Coates, a professor of economics at University of Maryland, Baltimore County, who has studied the impact of such facilities. Whether that benefits those who pay the bill — in the case of many pro arenas and stadiums, taxpayers; in this case, students — is less clear, he said.

"It creates a nice buzz, but otherwise, the impact is spread out," Coates said. "I can't figure out why they built this. They weren't filling the [Towson Center], and it wasn't that bad."

Those involved with Towson athletics have lobbied for years to renovate or replace the aging Towson Center, and the project was pushed through by former President Robert L. Caret in early 2011.

Caret used $20 million in reserve funds and crafted a plan to issue bonds and then pay them back through a student fee set aside for construction projects — currently set at $996 per year. He also hired an athletic director, Mike Waddell, known for his marketing expertise and charged him with rejuvenating a stagnant men's basketball program in time for the arena's opening.

Caret is president at the University of Massachusetts now. Waddell, who succeeded in turning basketball into a winner but drew heavy criticism from Towson boosters for trying to cut the baseball program, left last month to take a job at the University of Arkansas.

Before leaving, Waddell shared a lofty vision for what the 5,200-seat arena could mean to Towson, saying it could contribute millions of dollars in revenue to the school.

Besides hosting the school's games and events, the facility could host concerts, traveling shows, speakers, sports camps and business meetings. It's slightly larger than the arenas at Coppin State and Morgan State universities, but much smaller than 1st Mariner Arena, which can seat as many as 14,000.

Buzz about the arena, spurred in part by Internet videos, boosted giving, said Mike Harris, senior associate athletics director for external operations. It also lured better recruits to the men's basketball program.

"Players want amenities," Harris said. "Donors want amenities."

Workers hustled around the building Monday, wielding drills and cleaning supplies. Tiger Arena, as it will be called until a naming-rights deal can be completed, already has hosted six Towson University graduations and about 15 ceremonies for local high schools. The Special Olympics also had an event there.

The Globetrotters' visit marks the facility's first large revenue-generating events.

When four Globetrotters dribbled onto the gleaming playing surface Monday, ads for the team's sponsors — Howard Johnson, Greyhound, Wonderful Pistachios — flashed on a ribbon of screens encircling the concourse level above the first tier of gold-hued seats. High above the floor decorated with tiger stripes and a large claw print, a four-sided scoreboard hung dark, as did the advertising space above and below it.

"Everything about this arena is first-class," said Jonte Hall, the 5-foot-2 West Baltimore native who goes by the name of "Too Tall" with the Globetrotters. "It looks like one of the nicer places we've been, and we go a lot of places."

Glass-walled rooms will offer members of Towson's development arm, the Tiger Club, spots to schmooze before, during and after games. One of the arena's large suites is reserved for university President Maravene Loeschke, where she'll be able to entertain as many as 20 guests and potential donors.

Harris expects giving to increase because fans will be clamoring for the best seats at men's basketball games. To assign seats, the school uses a priority points system that takes into account past spending and giving as well as current-year donations.

There hadn't been much demand before last season's 18-13 record — after going a nation-worst 1-31 the year before — but Harris said season-ticket orders have nearly doubled, to 200. His goal is 800. He's hoping for a 30 percent increase in ticket sales overall, resulting in a revenue boost of $25,000 to $100,000 over last year.

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