- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 3, 2005

Talk about clout. Ed McDonald, chief of staff for Rep. Howard Coble, North Carolina Republican, made an important deal without even trying. It wasn’t a political deal. It was much bigger than that.

A Baltimore native, Towson University graduate and a big University of Maryland fan, Mr. McDonald is going to the Atlantic Coast Conference basketball tournament at MCI Center next week to root for his Terrapins.

With others on the Hill scrambling for tickets, Mr. McDonald played it cool. No calls, no begging. And then a government-affairs person who works for N.C. State came through. Mr. McDonald will apportion the tickets, one per session, in his office according to what teams are playing. But one thing is certain: He gets to see the Terps whenever they play. He will sit in the N.C. State section, cheering discreetly.

“Even though I’m a Maryland fan, they’re still going to let me go,” he said.

Mr. McDonald is one of the lucky ones. The return of the tournament to the D.C. area for the first time since 1987, when it was played at the Capital Centre in Landover, has set off a full-court press for tickets among congressional workers from ACC country — mainly North Carolina, the epicenter of the league.

In a city where political juice flows like water, even those with connections are coming up dry. Sen. Richard M. Burr, North Carolina Republican and former Wake Forest football player, will watch his Demon Deacons, of course. But his press secretary, Doug Heye, a University of North Carolina grad, is ticketless so far. Asked who he has called for help, Mr. Heye said, “Anybody I can think of.”

Joe Bonfiglio, a University of North Carolina grad and press secretary for Rep. Brad Miller, North Carolina Democrat, said, “I imagine some lucky staffers will be going,” although he is not among them yet.

“One of the problems of being a press secretary is that nobody wants to lobby you,” he said.

Mr. Miller, another University of North Carolina alumnus who does, in fact, get lobbied, said he will be there for his Tar Heels. That’s the plan, at least.

“I don’t have [the tickets] firmly in hand, but I’m told I can get them,” Mr. Miller said.

And if not, “it should be possible to pick up tickets” from fans of one of the losing teams, he said.

Buying tickets from the losers is standard practice at the tournament. Still, isn’t that sort of thing beneath the dignity of a member of Congress?

“Not a member of Congress from North Carolina,” Mr. Miller said. “I think it would be expected.”

Rep. Phil Gingrey, Georgia Republican, plans to cheer for his alma mater, Georgia Tech, although that depends on the schedule. He returns to his district every weekend, so he said he probably won’t be here for a Saturday game.

But if Tech makes it as far as the Sunday final, a long shot, “I’ll probably turn right around and come back,” he said. “I don’t often get an opportunity to get to the ACC tournament. Tickets are harder to get than tickets to the Masters in my hometown of Augusta.”

As elected officials, Mr. Burr, Mr. Miller and Mr. Gingrey have influence. But the lower you are on the political ladder, the poorer the odds of finding a ticket. Wake Forest graduate Heather Parsons, a former schoolteacher who works in Mr. Coble’s office as a legislative assistant, has just seven months of Hill experience. She would love to attend, but said, “I really wouldn’t know who to call.”

Even her brother, a former strength coach for the Wake basketball team, is of no help.

“It didn’t give me any inside track,” she said.

Because Wake likely will be the No.2 seed in the tournament and play next Friday, Miss Parsons figures her best shot is to buy a ticket from one of Thursday’s losers.

Todd Coons, a legislative assistant to Mr. Gingrey, would love to see his alma mater, Georgia Tech, play. No dice, so far.

“I’ve checked with the [Georgia Tech] athletic association and with friends from other schools,” Mr. Coons said. “It’s a tough ticket.”

The ACC tournament has always been a tough ticket but never like this. Its capacity of 20,000 makes the MCI Center the smallest venue for the tournament since 1989, when it was held at the Omni Coliseum in Atlanta. Since then, it has been played in such larger arenas as the Greensboro and Charlotte coliseums in North Carolina, each of which seats about 4,000 more.

Also, the addition of Virginia Tech and Miami increased the number of ACC members from nine to 11 (and next year, with the addition of Boston College, there will be 12). Think of a smaller pie being cut into more pieces. Obviously, each piece is smaller than before. The result is about 400 to 500 fewer tickets for each school.

Distributing tickets has been “more challenging” this year, said ACC associate commissioner Fred Barakat, who has overseen the process since 1992. “But that’s something we realized when we were talking about expansion.”

Mr. Barakat said the “old” nine conference members each receive at least 1,941 tickets, with the two newcomers getting 647, or one-third. The ACC has 647 seats for staff, sponsors and broadcast partners. The extra seats will be allocated to the schools according to demand, Mr. Barakat said, and teams will get an additional 100 seats for games in which they are playing.

The combination of a smaller arena and more teams hasn’t made Joe Hull’s life any easier. An associate athletic director at Maryland, Mr. Hull supervises the ticket distribution among members of the Terrapin Club, the university’s athletic booster group. As at other schools, decision on who gets the tickets is determined by how much each donates.

Not only are fewer tickets available, Mr. Hull said, the demand is higher because the tournament is in Maryland’s back yard. In the past, some Terps fans would not make the trip to Greensboro or Charlotte, which would free up tickets for those who wanted to travel. This year, everyone wants to go.

“The reduction in tickets created some genuine issues for us,” Mr. Hull said. “We were reduced by 500 tickets, and that means we have people who have been very supportive of Maryland for a number of years and are used to getting tickets who are not going. And whenever you have something taken away from people, it’s difficult.

“But I would say they’ve been great about it. They’re disappointed, but they understand to a great extent.”

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