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Sunny side of the suite lures sky box customers


The prospect, a no-nonsense executive in a pinstripe suit, has seen the multicolored charts and read the glossy brochures. Now he wants some nuts and bolts:

Where will the sun shine during the game? On which side of the stadium will the home team be based? And will renting a sky box enhance his chances of procuring the prestigious scoreboard advertising rights?

This brings the hit squad -- two senior representatives of Baltimore's NFL expansion effort -- to their feet. Hunched over their charts in a conference room in the USF&G; building they try to project solar trajectories, the predilections of a future coach and how sponsorship bidding will go.

It works. George M. Ferris Jr., chairman of the Ferris Baker Watts Inc. financial services firm, fills out the form for suite No. 94, a $45,000, 12-seat sky box at the end zone of the proposed downtown football stadium. "That's where the scouts sit," he explains.

And, he adds, "Ferris Baker Watts definitely wants to be a part of this."

Not all sales go so easily. Some prospects complain about all the "sold" signs on the stadium chart. Some say they can't afford it.

It's all in a day's work for Ernie Accorsi, special assistant to the local effort and a former NFL executive, and David Julian, business development director for the Greater Baltimore Committee on loan to the NFL effort.

Armed with a booklet of price lists and photocopies of the proposed stadium, they have spent almost every waking moment of the last three weeks knocking on doors and practicing what they call the "personal approach" to sky box leasing.

"David does the play-by-play, I'm the color man," Mr. Accorsi jokes.

It's part of an elaborate sales job -- spanning gubernatorial arm twisting and old-fashioned cold calls -- that local strategists hope will return Baltimore to the NFL.

Baltimore, one of four finalist cities vying for two NFL expansion teams, is collecting deposits for pricey sky boxes and club seats as part of a league-designed test of market strength that extends through Sept. 3. Two other cities are holding similar drives: St. Louis and Charlotte, N.C. Memphis plans to begin soon.

But unlike Charlotte, where organizers have built a life-size mock sky box, complete with a giant photo of a Dallas Cowboys game out the "window," the Baltimore leaders have adopted a softer sell. There are some donated ads, and media coverage, but by and large the sky boxes are being sold by word of mouth solicitation.

Much of this has to do with the product. With prices ranging from $45,000 to $105,000 a year, a sky box is hardly an impulse buy. The minimum commitment is three years, and the rent does not include food or drinks. And there are only eight regular-season home games in football.

The deposit is equal to half the first year's rent. It will be returned with interest if no team is awarded to Baltimore; and even if a team comes here, the stadium won't be open until the 1996 season.

But, ah, the suite life: concierge service, plush wall-to-wall carpeting, retractable tempered glass panels, dimmer-controlled lighting, private washrooms. Each suite has a wet bar, two color televisions, a private telephone, and individually controlled air conditioning and heating. Renters get VIP parking, guest passes to get friends into the box, and options for club seats and season tickets.

Because they will be far grander than the party rooms added to many older stadiums, earning them the name "sky boxes," organizers prefer to call these "luxury suites."

At Camden Yards, there are groups of friends that band together and rent a single box. But the norm there and so far in the proposed football stadium is on corporate customers, which has guided the strategy of the expansion officials here.

"We haven't done a lot of mass-market advertising because of who we're appealing to," said Mr. Accorsi, the last general

manager of the Baltimore Colts and more recently with the Cleveland Browns.

Planners convened a summit in May, after the league announced it was going to allow cities to "voluntarily" market premium seats. Charlotte's NFL organizers, who are trying to finance a stadium through season ticket fees, pushed for the demonstration as a way to prove their scheme could work. The other cities, including Baltimore, felt compelled to participate.

Out of the summit came the framework of a plan for selling the suites. The emphasis would be put on networking. Representatives of the political and corporate elite were recruited. Lists of prospects were drawn up with the aid of the Department of Economic and Employment Development, using its data on the state's businesses.

A theme was selected to project urgency: "It's now or never."

Gov. William Donald Schaefer attended a dinner of about 18 of the region's top CEOs on June 3 at the Centre Club. One businessman wondered aloud if the job could be done. Mr. Schaefer sternly gestured in the direction of the parking lot where the stadium would be built and vowed that there would be "a hole" there before he left office.

Most of the executives signed up immediately, forming a core of sky box customers. They were encouraged to call colleagues and friends, and encourage them to call friends.

Likely prospects have been invited to special dinners and lunches, often with the governor as a keynote speaker. One was held under a tent at the site of the stadium, another was last week in Hagerstown. Others are planned for Ocean City, Harrisburg, Pa., and Salisbury. Business leaders in each community have been tapped to help draw up invitation lists.

Serious inquiries result in a visit. Wavering prospects receive a pop-up model of the stadium and a football autographed by Johnny Unitas, Tom Matte and other legends of Baltimore football.

"We decided we would follow up personally and not lose them. We decided from the start we wanted to be client friendly," Mr. Accorsi said.

Mr. Julian said he expected the shaky economy and exodus of some corporate headquarters from Baltimore would hurt the effort. But so far there are few signs of it, aside from an occasional prospect discretely ordering club seats instead of a sky box, he said.

Baltimore was in the middle of the pack at the first two-week report to the NFL: 70 out of 100 sky boxes had been sold, and 3,800 out of 7,500 club seats. Charlotte had sold out its club seats and had 82 of 100 sky boxes sold. St. Louis, where organizers got a late start and blame the distractions of flooding, had a fraction of that sold.

Baltimore organizers say the All-Star Game interrupted the pace of inquiries here. The next report is due Friday.

Mr. Accorsi said sky box sales are ahead of where he thought they would be at this point.

As of yesterday, about 80 were sold, and 4,400 club seats reserved, officials said. If necessary, he and the other organizers are prepared to unleash a frenzy of private appeals by key business leaders, to put them over the top.

"You don't want to bring in your starter in the seventh inning," Mr. Accorsi said.

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