COLLEGE PARK — — In September 2009, Maryland held a ribbon-cutting ceremony for its new Tyser Tower, a $50.8 million football stadium modernization project that included 63 luxury suites with bars and flat-screen TVs.
It was telling that a university official told the audience of dignitaries and boosters that suites "are still available if you want to call me afterwards."
More than two years later, 20 luxury suites and nearly 200 mezzanine seats remain unsold, and the financially disappointing Byrd Stadium tower project looms as an important factor in the severe budget crunch that caused a university commission to recommend the elimination of multiple athletic teams.
Analysts say the sour economy and poor football-team performance in two of the past three seasons have contributed to the poor sales. But — long before the project was built — school officials received a report from a consulting team raising a number of potential red flags about suite sales, according to documents obtained under a public-records request.
The consultants surveyed area corporations and other potential suite buyers and found "a very low level of interest," according to a 2004 market assessment prepared for the university by Turnkey Sports of Columbia and Shugoll Research and Team Services of Bethesda.
"The survey results show a marked weakness on the suite side," the study said.
The consultants said in the report that the tower's new suites and mezzanine seats could still be successful. But it said Maryland's situation was different than many other large state universities because the school faced stiff competition for suite sales from other nearby venues.
"With new premium seating products at FedEx Field, MCI (now Verizon) Center, M&T; Bank Stadium, Camden Yards and the Comcast Center, the university will be entering a market that is already very heavily penetrated and saturated by the competition," the report said.
The Tyser project went forward under former athletic director Debbie Yow, who left in 2010 for the same position at North Carolina State.
Reached by e-mail, Yow said it would not be appropriate for her to comment since she is no longer at Maryland.
Athletic director Kevin Anderson, who replaced Yow 13 months ago, said he did not want to comment while the university commission was doing its work.
Athletic budgets depend heavily on ticket sales, merchandise and concessions. Maryland has said it has enough to pay the $2.3 million debt service on the tower project but that there is little leftover revenue.
Maryland's accumulating athletic department's deficit is anticipated to rise to about $8.7 million by the end of the 2013 fiscal year without action by the school.