- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 11, 2009

An addendum to Maryland’s media day was a tour of the recently constructed suites and mezzanine seating at Byrd Stadium that will debut with the Terrapins’ Sept. 12 home opener against James Madison.

From leather seats to flat-screen televisions to regular service from attendants, the suites provide a touch of luxury absent from Byrd in the past.

They’re also pricey commodities to market in a recession, especially for a program with a 33-28 record over the past five seasons. Maryland has sold season deals for 40 of the 64 suites with just more than a month before they open; at this time a year ago, Maryland already had sold 28.

Brian Ullmann, Maryland’s senior associate athletic director for external operations, said the school has sold five suites for single games since opening up that avenue this summer. But the greatest priority, athletic director Debbie Yow said, is meeting a debt requirement of about $2.4 million annually over 20 years.

For that to happen, the Terps need to reach the 48-suite plateau this season.

“I’m looking at what scenario do we need to stay whole, and that is generating enough revenue from suites to pay the debt service,” Yow said. “Everything else is gravy.”

Ullmann said when the project was launched - essentially when the University System of Maryland approved a $35 million loan in June 2006 and Chevy Chase Bank agreed to a $20 million field naming rights deal two months later - the hope was half of the suites would be sold to donors, with the rest purchased going to corporations.

Instead, the split is about 70-30 in favor of fans.

“The donors and the fan base, they’ve kind of upheld their part,” Ullmann said. “Where we see some missed opportunities is in the corporate community, which is not really surprising.”

The suites are hardly the only revenue issue facing Maryland as it deals with the recession. The Terps have sold 24,894 season tickets, down from the 27,110 this time last year. Ullmann said the dip was consistent with figures he has seen nationally, though he is optimistic the school can sell another 2,000 season tickets before the season starts.

Still, roughly 27,000 season tickets would be the school’s lowest figure since 2003.

“I still think we have a good chance to get a lot of those folks back. It’s not surprising, but I hate empty seats,” Ullmann said. “Whether that seat is in the suites, the mezzanine section or the lower bowl, I hate to see it because that represents the lifeblood of Maryland athletics.”

There are legitimate questions, regardless of trying economic conditions, whether Maryland can fare substantially better in its sales. The season-ticket base was 12,000 in 2000, the last season before coach Ralph Friedgen’s arrival, and it peaked around 30,000 in 2006 and 2007.

Yow said she didn’t believe the Terps had reached a ceiling but admitted it could be “unless you develop a consistent level of excellence.” She said such a standard would require a series of nine-win seasons, including bowl games. Maryland hasn’t won nine games in consecutive seasons since Friedgen’s first three years.

“You have to create a need,” Yow said. “People have to feel like they need the tickets. Not that they want them. But that they need them for quality of life - ‘My life is incomplete if I am not at Maryland watching them beat Rutgers. It’s incomplete.’ You do that by winning.”

That would seem to place a greater onus on the team itself to produce a strong season to help offset recessionary influences and attract more fans. For Friedgen, though, filling seats would be a welcome byproduct of what he hopes to do, not the primary priority of the season.

“Obviously, that would help,” Friedgen said. “There’s no question about it. The Redskins could say that. Probably a lot of other teams, too. I try to win as many games as I can every year. Nothing’s going to change that.”

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