- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 14, 2002

Club seats, the once-hot sports seating that attempted to bridge the gap between normal sections and the upscale perks of luxury suites, have fallen on hard times.

Every area sports fan is familiar with the glaring yellow ring at FedEx Field, marking the large blocks of unsold or unused club seats in the middle of the Washington Redskins' stadium. The sales lag, however, is now seen nationwide. The NBA, which enjoys a strong relationship with corporate America and leans particularly hard on club seats, is feeling the pinch most.

The Washington Wizards recently converted 500 of 3,000 club seats at MCI Center to luxury suites, partly the result of lagging club seat sales. The Seattle SuperSonics have eliminated the club seat section at Key Arena. More than a dozen other NBA teams, including the champion Los Angeles Lakers, have failed to sell out their club seat sections this season.

"This was something that never really sold out for us," Wizards spokesman Matt Williams said of the club seat reduction at 5-year-old MCI. "We continue to have very good demand for our suites, which made the decision to convert those seats rather easy. It's a better use of the space.

"But for the club seats, a lot of folks weren't seeing the value anymore," Williams continued. "It's not quite as nice as the suites, and it's certainly not as close as our courtside and lower-level seats. You factor the [lagging] economy in, and what's going on is not too much of a surprise."

In the middle and late 1990s, club seats were among the hottest elements in both sports marketing and stadium/arena financing. By offering amenities such as waiter service, wider seats, separate entrances and VIP hospitality areas, teams with club sections were able to serve small- to mid-sized corporations eager to entertain clients, as well as gain access to an important new revenue stream to offset building construction costs.

Operators of most new stadiums and arenas devote less than a quarter of their seating capacity to club seats but gain as much as a third of their annual ticket sales revenue from the seats.

And since most club seats are sold with multi-year contracts, usually three to five years, the pricier sections also presented a more stable revenue source for teams.

Once the economy began to swoon, however, teams from coast to coast found both renewals and new club seat orders drying up quickly.

"As corporate America goes, so go club seats, and no market is immune from that," said Michael Roth, spokesman for Staples Center in Los Angeles, which has never sold out its club seats. The 2,500-seat club section there offers access to five pro teams, including the Lakers and Los Angeles Clippers, but each seat starts at $12,500 a year.

Rick Horrow, a Florida-based stadium development consultant and visiting professor of sports law at Harvard University, said the downturn is only temporary and does not spell the end of club seats in the NBA or elsewhere in professional sports.

"Most aspects of [sports] facility development and operation are cyclical, and club seats have grown to the point where they fall into the category as well," Horrow said. "This, I think, is a short-term market correction, and that can actually be very good for the industry. It forces the creation of new ideas and new ways to provide value to corporations and the development of new ways to create revenue."

In the 1980s and early '90s, it was fashionable for celebrities to be sit courtside at Lakers and New York Knicks games and be visible. Now across the NBA, it is fashionable for anybody with money to want to sit as close to the action as possible. Here in Washington, courtside seats in the Michael Jordan era have more than doubled in cost to $750 each per game, and notables as diverse as Mike Tyson and Dan Snyder can be found there.

"Our club section is a higher-priced seat, but it's not in the best location. The amenities we offered didn't make up for the gap in distance from the court," said Laura Kussick, Sonics senior vice president of sales, of Key Arena. "The section was always one of the last to sell out, when it even did sell out, and it was not a difficult decision to convert the section [to normal seating] once the contracts expired."

A handful of NBA teams, including Boston, Dallas and Detroit, have actually added club seats this season to take advantage of recent on-court success. Some clubs also are becoming more unconventional in promoting the seats. Operators of FleetCenter, home of the Boston Celtics and NHL Bruins, recently hired beloved Boston hockey legend Ray Bourque to serve as an "ambassador" to socialize with holders of the arena's club seats and suites.

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