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The Game of Catering to Rich

To pump up revenue, pro sports franchises and facilities create new spaces and ways to pamper those in the elite seats

July 18, 2006|Greg Johnson | Times Staff Writer

Tad Segars boasts that the best seat in his house doubles as one of the best from which to catch the action at Lowe's Motor Speedway in Concord, N.C. It's an easy claim to make because the real estate agent's chair sits in a condominium overlooking the racetrack's noisy first turn.

When roaring engines drown out polite conversation, Segars shuts the sliding door and watches the action on a big-screen television. And when other fans are battling traffic on the way home, he's relaxing in the living room or preparing a snack in the kitchen.

Whether it's a pricey condominium hard by a racing oval, the growing number of courtside seats being added at NBA arenas, or the upscale boxes that the Dodgers created along the field at Chavez Ravine, sports marketers are scrambling to push upscale fans ever closer to the action while pampering them with creature comforts.

"It's amazing what you can come up with if you go through an arena with a critical eye," said Tom Glick, chief marketing officer of the New Jersey Nets, which last year added 16 courtside seats at the Meadowlands that each will generate more than $60,000 in annual revenue. "You start reinventing things when you look at [the venue] with a bit of imagination. You look with an eye toward what it could become."

Many of these new seats are in what architects call "found space" -- square footage that has been underutilized. Fans love the new seats because they're close to the action; operators love them because they generate additional revenue.

"Found space is found money," said Daniel Zausner, managing director of facility operations for the USTA National Tennis Center, which plays host to the U.S. Open.

The New York tennis center recently added more courtside seats by narrowing aisles, consolidating two photography stands into a single location and adding two seats to luxury boxes that previously held six fans.

Las Vegas Motor Speedway will build a 127-unit condominium on a dusty patch of land now used for race-day parking. Real estate agents expect out-of-town fans will pay $500,000 or more for units that will be used largely on race-day weekends.

The Detroit Pistons converted storage lockers beneath the stands at the Palace of Auburn Hills and built "bunker suites" there. Although patrons can't see the live action from these suites, it's a short walk between the suites that resemble private clubs and courtside seats. The suites lease for more than $350,000 a year.

Sometimes, the found space is the result of a lucrative game of musical chairs. That's the case in the NBA, which is giving teams more control over where sports reporters sit during games.

"With all the stories circulating about [courtside] seats selling for $2,000, you had to sort of wonder, 'Why am I still sitting here,' " said Sam Smith, who covers NBA games for the Chicago Tribune, a sister paper of The Times.

"About half of the media are still sitting where they did for the past 30 to 50 years, but that's going to change. The teams are going to be selling tickets for these seats and reporters are going to be sitting in a lot of different places."

The Lakers won't fiddle with their seating plan next season, but the Clippers will dispatch some reporters to other locations to free up space for pricey seats on the floor.

Critics might complain that the upscale seats are part of a decades-long pattern of escalating ticket prices, but teams counter that the new revenue can help to keep prices relatively stable for bleacher seats and the like.

"Every off-season, we consider two things," said Carl Lahr, longtime Clippers marketing and advertising executive. "Can we get more seats, and what can we do with pricing?"

The Clippers' 40 new seats sell for about $350 per game -- though the cost probably will be higher because they were marketed as part of season-ticket packages that include other amenities. The seats went fast, snapped up by longtime ticket holders who wanted to get closer to the action.

"The people who buy them will own them for the rest of their lives," Lahr said. "And their grandkids will probably end up owning them."

David Pyle, an Orange County businessman who has purchased Clippers season tickets since the 1980s, bought two of the new seats without ever having sat in them. Staples Center wasn't configured for a Clippers game when the seats went on sale a few weeks ago, but Pyle didn't hesitate to write a check.

"The only person sitting in front of me will be Ralph Lawler," Pyle said in reference to the Clippers' play-by-play announcer. "It's going to be a pretty phenomenal view from courtside. I'll really be able to get a sense of the energy, and for how fast the game is, how quick the players are." Sometimes, less can turn out to be more from a revenue standpoint.

Before the start of this season, the Dodgers tore out 1,200 seats along the baselines. The project was designed to remedy poor sightlines created during a botched $20-million renovation a year earlier.

But instead of installing an equal number of new seats, the club built only 700 seats along what the Dodgers have described as the upscale beachfront property at Chavez Ravine.

"They're a combination of the private boxes that used to be at baseball parks and a bit from the boxes at the Hollywood Bowl. You've got the table for dining and additional legroom," said Marty Greenspun, the Dodgers' chief operating officer.

The Dodgers also are considering adding close-in parking, a concierge service and a system that would allow fans to preorder food that might be delivered in a picnic basket.

And because these conversions weren't that expensive, most teams will be able to recoup their expense in just a few years.

"It's all about location for the fans," said the Nets' Glick. "You have the ability to bring fans to ... where the players are. It's all about giving them stuff that you don't normally expect to see, that you can't see on TV. It's the priceless stuff."

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