WASHINGTON – When the University of Maryland’s men’s basketball team took the court last night, 21 spectators watched from high above the floor, thanking Jackie Bottash for their good fortune.
That’s because Bottash holds the keys to the luxury suite owned by the Venable law firm at Comcast Center in College Park.
“It takes a lot of accommodating because there are so many requests,” come game day, said Bottash, a suite administrator who is responsible for doling out seats at Venable’s luxury suites at Comcast Center and MCI Center in Washington.
That demand is helping to fill skyboxes at venues across the state, despite a sagging economy and a glut of such seats, say team officials and industry observers.
“We’re sold out this season,” said Roy Sommerhof, senior director of stadium operations for the Baltimore Ravens, of 108 skyboxes at M&T Bank Stadium.
Sommerhof said area firms continue to clamor for luxury suites that cost up to $200,000 per year, echoing comments made by officials with the Washington Redskins, Baltimore Orioles and minor league baseball teams in Bowie and Frederick.
Since Maryland’s first skyboxes opened at Baltimore’s Oriole Park at Camden Yards in 1992, hundreds of new suites have come on the market at venues ranging from Comcast to FedEx Field in Landover.
But as skybox numbers shot up in the late 1990s, the number of potential customers declined as the economy dipped and as acquisitions such as Allfirst’s purchase by Allied Irish Banks thinned the ranks of deep-pocketed corporate players.
Despite those factors, however, team officials say demand for skyboxes continues to be strong and is not expected to weaken anytime soon.
“We weren’t always sold out,” Sommerhof said, referring to the stadium’s opening in 1998 when only 85 percent of skyboxes got sold. “Winning the Superbowl in 2000 has certainly helped with sales.”
Jon Greenberg of Team Marketing Report, a Chicago-based firm that publishes sports marketing and sponsorship data, agreed that performance often trumps economic concerns when it comes to skybox sales.
“It really depends on the market and the team’s performance,” said Greenberg. “You’re still seeing a lot in the way of corporations spending on skyboxes.”
Greenberg said the trend toward skyboxes will likely continue because stadium builders know companies will pay for the luxury suites.
“It’s still a must when you build a new stadium,” Greenberg said.
Tax benefits and a sufficient number of large firms in the area help maintain the demand for skyboxes, said Dennis Coates, a University of Maryland Baltimore County economics professor.
“Luxury boxes remain a tax write-off for companies,” said Coates, “so lots of companies, particularly larger ones, can find a way to afford boxes, despite the less-than-stellar economy.”
Teams also have incentives to generate skybox revenue.
Football league rules let teams keep all revenue derived from skyboxes, while income from sources such as general ticket sales, televisions contracts and concession sales must be shared with other teams. Baseball teams, too, can keep their skybox revenue but must share other income, depending on the team’s profitability.
Orioles luxury suites can fetch up to $289,000 a year — higher than the $200,000 that Ravens and Redskins can get for a skybox, but baseball offers 10 times as many games.
But NFL teams have an even greater incentive than baseball teams to fill skybox seats, said Jim Grinstead, publisher of the Milwaukee-based Revenues from Sports Venues, because they have to share more of their other revenues than baseball teams do. That “means you can keep more of your cash through skyboxes” in the NFL, Grinstead said.
The Orioles’ 72 skyboxes are far fewer than the Ravens’ 108 and the 243 at FedEx Field, home of the Washington Redskins.
The Redskins added 36 luxury suites to FedEx Field after Daniel Snyder bought the team in 1999, team spokesman Karl Swanson said, and demand from corporations has been both strong and steady.
“There’s been no shift” in the number or type of skybox clients since Snyder took over, Swanson said. “We’ve been sold out ever since.”
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