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Future is now at MCI Center Arena: The attractions only start with the Wizards and Capitals at Washington's 21st century sports and entertainment complex.

WASHINGTON — WASHINGTON -- You may, with a ticket, be able to catch a basketball game at the MCI Center. But it will take some work. And a lot of focus.

First, you'll have to get past the enormous "team store" crammed with sports-related merchandise, a piano-sized hockey puck and flickering television monitors. Then you need to steer clear of the three-story Discovery Channel store, with its replica Tyrannosaurus Rex and sweeping, multimedia tour of spaceship Earth.

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Then, it's a matter of breaking free from the one-on-one basketball game against a virtual Chris Webber, and resisting the temptation to wrap your fingers around a bat once wielded by Babe Ruth, so you can get a clear shot at your seat -- and the chance to take in the actual reality of 10 tall guys with a basketball.

The MCI Center opening tonight in downtown Washington is far more than the home court for Abe Pollin's twin teams, the NBA Wizards and NHL Capitals. It's a $200 million monument to the future of sports -- a future in which, experts tell us, it will take more than skillful puck-handling, shapely cheerleaders and slam-dunk contests to get us to come to a game.

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Elements of this notion can be seen in almost every stadium and arena opened in the 1990s, including Oriole Park, with its Eutaw Street pavilion and Camden warehouse bistros. More recently, Cleveland's Gund Arena was built with a mall-style food court that's open even when the arena is dark.

But the MCI Center, with 25 times as many square feet devoted to retailing and restaurants as its NBA court, takes the idea beyond what anyone else has tried. And it has captured the attention of a sports industry eager to adopt innovations if they prove successful.

"I believe this will set a standard for other facilities to emulate," said Rick Horrow, a sports consultant and president of Horrow Sports Venture in Miami. "Teams are realizing that a facility allows for a true recreational opportunity that transcends the sporting event itself."

Transcends and perhaps overwhelms. The MCI Center aims to attract tourists and visitors year-round, even when the home teams are away. Elements of the building will be open from early morning to late night, selling food, tours and admission to its attractions. No fad has been overlooked, from pricey cigars to boutique microbrews, high-tech "smart cards" and the World Wide Web.

"Mr. Pollin wanted this to be seen as not just a sports arena, but a 24-hour entertainment facility. 'Meet, greet and eat,' he often said, and I think they've delivered," said Susan O'Malley, president of Washington Sports and Entertainment -- the holding company for the Wizards, Capitals and the MCI and US Airways arenas -- whose chairman is Pollin.

Even some of the two dozen traditional concession stands in the concourses will be open from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. weekdays when no events are being held so passers-by can drop in for a bucket of buffalo wings or a soft pretzel.

Among the featured diversions:

The three-level, 20,000-square-foot Velocity Grill will serve lunch, dinner and more than 100 draft beers. There are flat-panel, digital television screens in the booths and electronic, hand-held order and payment devices for the waiters. A textured glass floor provides a view of the Wizards' practice court below. A cigar lounge, with walk-in humidor, is planned.

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Multimedia kiosks, called "arenaNet" stations, are dotted throughout the building, allowing visitors to generate digital postcards, log on to the Internet and play sports trivia games.

A patented, digital camera system mounted on the scoreboard suspended from the ceiling at midcourt will take a picture of every fan in every seat, who can then buy the shots mounted on replica tickets as a keepsake.

Modell's Team Store will showcase team-related clothing and trinkets in a massive store equipped with an interactive computer kiosk, satellite feeds and 12 television monitors so shoppers won't miss a minute of, for example, the Illinois-Purdue game.

The Discovery Channel has installed a tour de force of science that starts deep beneath the oceans and launches you into outer space, with plenty of buying opportunities along the way.

The national sports gallery is a sort of Smithsonian Institution meets the "Wide World of Sports." Visitors pay $3.50 (ages 12 and under) to $5.50 and enter through a full-scale replica of a Wrigley Field box office.

Here, fans can buy computerized smart cards (similar to a pre-paid phone calling card) that enable them to try out the various diversions, from virtual skiing with a video-simulated slope to a sportscaster's booth where a tape will be made as they call the game of their choice. Memorabilia and static displays are sprinkled throughout, such as a Joe Jackson bat, a 1909 Honus Wagner card and the robe Muhammad Ali wore at the "Rumble in the Jungle."

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"There is no other facility like this in the world," Pollin said. "We will have things that no one else has. You will be batting, you will be pitching, you will be shooting a basket against Chris Webber or going into a huddle with Joe Theismann."

The profit potential also is great. To begin with, Pollin said he expects to book events for 250 out of 365 days of the year. Besides serving as home to the Caps, Wizards (nee Bullets), a Women's NBA team and the Georgetown Hoyas, the facility already is scheduled to play host to the Franklin National Bank Classic college basketball tournament, a Barry Manilow concert, the World Professional Figure Skating Championships and World Championship Wrestling's Starrcade.

And that's just in December.

Then there are the ancillary attractions and eateries, many of which charge their own admission fee and presumably pay rent or share revenue with the landlord facility. When it's up and running early next year, the Discovery Channel store, for example, will have a custom-produced film on Washington, viewable for $2.50. The arena itself will sell tours for $7.50.

"I would think he [Pollin] would make money. I think he will make money on operations and the value of his sports franchises should increase by large margins -- double-digit margins," said Tom Chema, a Cleveland-based sports facilities adviser who oversaw construction of that city's Jacobs Field and Gund Arena and is now president of Gateway Consultants.

"Buildings are increasingly profit centers for teams," Chema said.

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Other than $77 million in government contributions for land, public transportation and infrastructure upgrades, Pollin financed the arena privately. MCI Telecommunications Corp. reportedly paid $40 million for the right to showcase its technology in the arena and put its name on the outside, and Ogden Entertainment paid $10 million upfront for the concessions contract.

Another $145 million came from a loan underwritten by a syndicate of banks, led by Sumitomo Bank and NationsBank. The debt is backed by revenues from Washington Sports and Entertainment, chiefly the 110 skyboxes and 3,045 club seats at MCI Center, said Martin Klepper, a partner with Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom in Washington, which represented the banks in the deal.

Because the club seats and suites -- which rent for up to $7,500 and $250,000 a year, respectively -- have long-term contracts, banks prefer their certain revenue to the uncertain proceeds of the other activities in the building as collateral, Klepper said. A dozen "founders suites" were leased for 10 years for $1 million upfront.

"It's a little bit too early to see how much of a profit center [the other activities at the arena] will be," Klepper said.

"It has the potential to be a separate profit center, but banks aren't in the business of lending money based on the idea of, 'If you build it, they will come.' "

Getting there

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Commuters have three main options in reaching the MCI Center, which is located at 7th and F streets in Washington, D.C., near Chinatown. A look:

By car:

Driving to the MCI Center will be time-consuming, and finding parking could be even more so. Most on-street parking within several blocks of the arena will be metered until 10 p.m., and spaces in area parking garages will be at a premium. Take the Baltimore-Washington Parkway or I-95 south to the Capital Beltway (I-495) and then east on the beltway to the parkway (Exit 22). Take the parkway into Washington (it becomes New York Avenue) and follow it to 7th Street NW. Take a left on 7th Street. Route 50 from the east, which also merges into New York Avenue, also may be used to access the city.

By Metro:

Commuters using I-95 have a choice of stations at which they can park and take Metro trains downtown. For the Greenbelt station, merge onto the Capital Beltway east and take Exit 24 to the rail station. Riders will need to exit this Green Line train at Fort Totten and take the Red Line toward Shady Grove. The Silver Spring station may be accessed by taking the beltway west toward Silver Spring and then taking Colesville Road south (Exit 30). Commuters also may opt for the Orange Line at New Carrollton, which is more central for those accessing the city zTC from the east. The MCI Center has its own Metro station. All Metro lines run approximately until midnight. Fares depend on ,, the time of day and distance traveled.

MARC to Metro:

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Riders can board a MARC train at Baltimore's Penn Station and ride to Washington's Union Station for roughly a $10 round-trip ticket. This option is available only on weekdays, however. Travel time is approximately 50 minutes. Union Station is two stops from MCI Center on the Red Line. A separate fare is required for the Metro ride.

Pub Date: 12/02/97


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