A fan seated in the uppermost rows of the new arena at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County will get a sweeping view of $85 million of gray and gold and glass.
After buying popcorn from a full-size concession stand, the fan will watch from one of 5,000 seats as a team of UMBC athletes — its Division I basketball or volleyball players — competes atop a wooden floor that can be pulled off its concrete base and stacked up like an enormous jigsaw puzzle.
The new arena is a big step for UMBC, a 13,000-student university that marked its 50th birthday in 2016.
“UMBC’s kind of all grown up,” said university architect Joe Rexing, gesturing at the facility.
After two years of construction, the UMBC Event Center will make its debut at 4 p.m. Saturday with a men's basketball game against the Vermont Catamounts.
Nancy Young, the school’s vice president for student affairs, said that the Event Center was built to enhance athletics, student life and the university’s relationship with the community.
The center will “give us the space and the facilities we need to grow our student life,” Young said. It also will allow UMBC to reach out to the community by hosting concerts, performances and high school graduations, she said.
“We are always looking for ways to be good neighbors,” Young said.
UMBC’s varsity men’s and women’s basketball teams, as well as its women’s volleyball team, will play home games in the Event Center. Other resources in the 172,000-square-foot building, including an academic center and a sports medicine facility, will be available for all of the school's 400 student athletes, spokeswoman Candace Dodson-Reed said.
“We’re excited,” said Tim Hall, the school’s athletic director. “It’s going to be certainly the best facility in our league, in my opinion.” UMBC is a member of the NCAA’s America East Conference.
When the Event Center is not being used for games, it will host events such as concerts, trade shows and commencement ceremonies for UMBC and nearby high schools. Tiffany Sun, general manager of the Event Center and an employee of management company Oak View Group Facilities, which was hired to manage the building, said four major ticketed events are already planned between now and May, beginning with a concert by rock band A Day To Remember on March 13.
The arena is built to accommodate major tours, Sun said, with rubber paneling to stifle echoes and a rigging system capable of holding more than 100,000 pounds. When the removable basketball floor is stored away, Rexing said, a stage can be installed and 1,000 extra seats can be lined up on the concrete floor. A private dressing room with a lounge area and a private restroom will host performers between sets.
“In this area of the county, we don’t have a very large facility like this,” Young said, saying the school is looking forward to showcasing art events and performances, “the kinds of things there hasn’t been a lot of opportunity for in our part of the county.”
The Retriever Room, a space for special events and banquets, has glass on both sides — one side looks out onto the arena, while the other looks out onto the outdoor stadium, where sports such as soccer and lacrosse are played.
Up to this point, major events at UMBC have been held in the Retriever Activities Center, a multipurpose athletic facility with a 4,024-seat basketball arena. The space was not large enough for the school’s commencement ceremonies; last year, 1,300 UMBC students graduated at Royal Farms Arena in Baltimore.
“That building wasn’t built for the number of students who go through those doors every day,” Hall said of the Retriever Activities Center. “
The RAC remains on campus and will be used for physical education classes, community events and intramural athletics.
Dodson-Reed said that ticket prices for games will go up modestly once the Event Center opens. A ticket to a recent men’s basketball game in the Retriever Activities Center cost $13 to $25; tickets to a similar game scheduled for February in the Event Center are listed online at between $17 and $40.
"Revenues generated by the Event Center from University and non-university events will be used to cover the costs of operating and maintaining the building and to support Athletics,” Dodson-Reed said in an email.
Hall, the athletic director, said that currently the school’s 17 varsity sports teams do not make a profit. That has the potential to change, however, as UMBC’s sports rise in stature, he said.
UMBC’s men’s basketball team has been winning — as of Jan. 26, it had won 14 of 22 games, including all its home games. (The women’s team, by contrast, had lost 18 of 20 games so far this season.) Hall said the men’s team “wasn’t in great shape” when he started five years ago, and that the team is on an upward trajectory.
“Winning in basketball gives us one of the best opportunities for revenue generation,” he said.
Towson University’s $70 million multipurpose, 5,200-seat SECU Arena, which opened in 2013, has “really been a game changer for us,” university spokesman Raymond Feldmann said.
The arena, Feldmann said, has boosted attendance at Towson games and has attracted other events, including concerts, graduations, performances such as comedian Amy Schumer, and a recent deal to host the Baltimore Blast professional indoor soccer team.
UMBC’s potential for a revenue boost comes after an $85 million investment in the building — $7 million for the design, $75 million for construction and $3 million for furniture, fixtures and equipment, Dodson-Reed said.
“The money came from four places,” Dodson-Reed wrote in an email. “Savings over the years to prepare for this need, a contribution from the University System of Maryland, sponsorships and gifts, and the remainder (the bulk of it) was borrowed.” The school did not raise tuition to pay for the building, she said.
That investment built not only an arena, but a number of services available exclusively to UMBC’s varsity athletes.
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The basketball and volleyball teams each have their own new locker room in the Event Center, complete with a flat-screen television, kitchenette and lockers with USB outlets. Athletes can access tutoring and advising services in a new academic center. To treat and prevent injuries, they can visit a sports medicine center, which has cold and hot baths for physical therapy and a third tub with an underwater treadmill.
“Being a Division I athlete is basically a full-time job,” associate athletic director Tom Mandato said, adding that varsity athletes spend as many as 20 hours per week on their sport, while also attending classes. The Event Center, he said, will provide “one-stop shopping” to help those students succeed.
Such elaborate athletic facilities, Young said, are not incongruous with UMBC’s reputation as a studious place where, as university president Freeman A. Hrabowski III often says, “it’s cool to be smart.”
“I think that sometimes in our society, we have a dichotomy between what we think of mind and body,” Young said. "I think smart students want opportunities to be engaged physically.”
The Event Center, she said, will add to what UMBC students are learning inside the classroom — for athletes, for students attending games, and for those participating in activities in the Retriever Activities Center, which she said will now be more often available for the UMBC community.
“I think we will always want to be known as a place that people think of, first, of the mind,” Young said. “But I think there’s few of us that don’t remember a time in college where we were at a game, or celebrating a victory with friends, or using a space for a concert.”
“Those are memories that stick with us for years after college. They’re part of an entire, well-rounded experience.”