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Fans need to shell out big bucks to see Terps

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Many fans of the University of Maryland men's basketball team, anticipating next year's move from creaky Cole Field House, are finding that the cost of their devotion is rising with the walls of the new arena.

A coveted mid-court seat? Plan on donating at least $100,000 to the building campaign. A lesser perch? Plan a generous annual gift to the boosters' club and don't get too comfy: The University of Maryland plans on redistributing most of the ticket assignments every three years, based largely on giving.

University officials and supporters say the prices and policies are the cost of getting the Comcast Center and boosting the program.

"If a new church or synagogue is going to build a new building, the members are going to be asked to help pay for it. We need to build the new building and operate the program," said Joe Hull, Maryland's interim senior associate athletic director for external operations.

It is part of a trend in big-time collegiate sports, which have mimicked professional teams with higher prices and greater dependence on corporate support.

"I just can't get over the numbers here," said Harry Rosenthal, a developer from Owings Mills who has supported his alma mater avidly for eight years but isn't sure he's going to re-up.

"I'm not going to spend $50,000 to $100,000 for seats. ... You really have to consider, is that where you want your charitable dollars going?" he said. He will probably see what his current donation gets him in the new place.

The fund raising has gone well, according to university officials. No doubt one factor is the Terrapins' strong play in recent years, including the team's first Final Four appearance last season. The $25,000 to $50,000 seats are sold out, and booster club memberships and donations are at a record high.

State lawmakers required the university to find private sources for $46.9 million of the $101 million arena project. If all goes well, the athletic department should raise that and more as the facility lures fans and dollars the way Oriole Park and PSINet Stadium transformed the finances of Baltimore's baseball and football teams.

The athletic department is projecting an 18 percent increase in its budget over the next two years, and the president of the Terrapin Club booster group believes it can raise annual giving over the next few years to a level 25 percent above where it was before the Final Four season.

"I think this will help more than just basketball," said Bob Baker, president of the Terrapin Club.

Givers have a range of options in donating to the Comcast Center, such as putting the family name on the coaches' locker room for $100,000 or getting the right to buy 12 of the best seats in each of the next 20 years for $1 million.

Corporations, too, are being romanced. The university has identified nearly $42 million in "naming opportunities" at the arena. Cable TV giant Comcast Corp. has the largest share of that, pledging $20 million to get its name on the building.

Hull said there are no plans to raise ticket prices beyond single-digit adjustments. But gate receipts will grow because the 17,100-seat new arena will have 3,000 more seats than Cole Field House. Also, membership in the Terps Club, which is required for most tickets, has been climbing.

The first 10 rows of the new arena and an end zone section are reserved for students. Each student pays an activity fee and is eligible to stand in line to try to get one of 4,000 free tickets for these seats for each home game.

The choicest 1,600 mid-court seats on both sides have been reserved for "Building Partners." Entry requires a one-time donation of $25,000, for the outer fringe, to $1 million for the middle. A donor receives four to 12 seats per game, depending on the gift, parking passes and other incentives.

Membership in the building partnership has an exclusive benefit: Givers don't have to worry about their seats being reassigned for 20 years, or their lifetimes, whichever is longer. But they are expected to make annual donations to the Terrapin Club and buy season tickets each year. Such tickets for this season's 17 games cost $445.

"Some people might call me crazy," said Debbie Potter, an Annapolis lawyer and Maryland alumna. She and her husband have pledged $50,000 for six Building Partnership seats. As required, they will also donate at least $3,500 a year to the Terrapin Club.

"When I first saw the donor levels the university is seeking I thought they were lofty goals, and I think it is a tribute to the program" that the sales have been strong, Potter said.

Most other seats will be apportioned to club members according to a point system that measures annual donation, lifetime giving, longevity, recruitment of members and other factors. These "Terpoints" are calculated annually.

The points have long been used to fill the few openings that come up each year. But season ticket holders have not been bumped.

That is going to change next year when Terrapin Club members will be ushered into a room, one by one, in order of rank, to choose their seats off a chart. A similar process will be followed for "Building Partners" in their section.

"If 10 years ago you were giving $600 a year and today you're still giving $600 a year, you've probably lost some ground," Hull said.

But, he added, "we're going to great lengths to reward loyalty" through the longevity component of the point system.

Some longtime fans will find themselves in inferior seats. Others might find themselves in better seats for the same annual donation, Baker said.

All but the "Building Partners" will find their seats reassigned every three years. The policy is designed to get donors to increase their giving every year.

The University of North Carolina reassigns seats every six or seven years. The University of Michigan doesn't routinely reassign. North Carolina State has been doing it every year for years.

Murray Sperber, a critic of collegiate athletic excesses, said Maryland's pricing and reassignment plans put it among the more aggressive fund-raisers.

"What they are doing is becoming more common, but the schools that can get away with it can put a winner on the field year after year," Sperber said. The Indiana University English professor is the author of Beer and Circus: How Big-Time College Sports Is Crippling Undergraduate Education.

Reassigning seats breaks up the community among seatmates. And the heavy fund raising may divert donations that otherwise meet academic needs, he said.

The arena will generate more money, but much of it will be used to pay for the building, said Rob Mullens, Maryland's executive senior associate athletic director. The arena is expected to add up to $3 million a year in operating costs, because it is bigger, fully air-conditioned, and the university will not pay half the bills as at Cole.

The athletic department's budget, which was $29.5 million in the fiscal year that ended June 30, is projected to hit $36.5 million in the first year in the new arena and $38 million the year after.

That's not enough to add sports. But if giving to the 5,200-member Terp Club reaches $6 million in a few years, up from $4.6 million last year, Baker thinks it will allow Maryland's 25 sports to offer all the scholarships permitted under collegiate rules. Now, only 17 can.

"I'm sure there will be a lot of weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth by people getting re-seated," said Robert Kean, a credit manager from Rodgers Forge who has attended games since 1984 and plans to renew his tickets.

"They have to do what they have to do," he said.

Around the arena

Students and donors to the athletic department will get most of the 17,100 seats in the University of Maryland's new basketball arena. Here's a breakdown:

4,000 seats: students, covered by their activity fees

800-1,000: faculty and staff

1,600: "Building Partners," awarded blocks of four to 12 seats in prime locations in the middle of each side of the court. In exchange, the partner makes a one-time donation of $25,000 to $1 million, an annual donation to the Terrapin Club, and buys the season tickets.

Balance of seats for supporters: Terrapin Club members, given choice of seats according to rank in "Terpoints" (earned by size of annual gift, years of membership, referrals of new members, and other factors).

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