Saturday, Feb. 3, was graduation day at UMBC. Only this time it wasn’t the students who were ready for their next chapters. It was the university that was entering new, exciting territory.
The step up was not only in athletics, but in prestige and economics, too, as the $85 million, 5,500-seat UMBC Event Center was unveiled before a big crowd for the basketball matchup between the Retrievers and the University of Vermont.
UMBC President Freeman Hrabowski’s laser-like focuses on academics and making sure everyone knows that math is cool has UMBC ranked among the elite of schools on the East Coast, if not the throughout the country. But he also understands how the sports programs can boost a university’s stature.
With the debut of the facility, the university can increase and even establish new revenue streams via naming rights for the center, events, advertising and endowments.
From UMBC’s perspective, said Greg Simmons, vice president of institutional advancement, the new options require a new focus. “We’re looking for a partner that can make an investment in the arena. It could be via a naming rights agreement or one where a donor comes along and meets the requirements of an endowment.”
That means the lines of communication are buzzing between the university and parents and alums, he said. “There are various opportunities for us to work on philanthropy to sell naming rights within the arena,” including the Student Academic Center, which is in the center’s basement; the hospitality room, which sits atop the arena on the I-195 side; the university weight room; the coaching suite; etc.
For instance, elsewhere on campus, UMBC has set up an endowment for a named professorship to honor a beloved university statistician. “So, people can give philanthropically in that manner to name various sections of the arena, too,” said Simmons.
“We’re working with potential naming rights partners now,” he said, “and we’re looking for a market rate deal” that is similar to the $450,000-per-year, 10-year deal at Towson University’s SECU Arena.
But Simmons stressed that the new facility isn’t just about the campus. “The arena isn’t just for sports and graduations. It’s for the overall community,” he said. “We want to measure the impact of the building by the quality of the student experience, the events it attracts and the patronizing of events in Catonsville and Arbutus,” he said.
Handling that quest is OVG Facilities, which has already booked concerts with A Day to Remember (March 13) and Maze Featuring Frankie Beverly (April 21), as well as A Mother’s Day Celebration (May 12) and a performance by the Harlem Globetrotters (March 15).
Virginia Beach-based OVG has relationships with 28 facilities and full management of nine, including the UMBC Event Center. UMBC pays OVG, which has seven staffers on-site, a fee for management services, plus a percentage for revenues generated over a certain benchmark.
“Our job is to bring in as many outside events as possible,” said Doug Higgons, OVG senior vice president, “and we’ll ask the local corporate community and small businesses to sponsor the venue and athletic events.”
Higgons noted that UMBC can make money from ads on the scoreboards, as well as its hospitality room, concessions and catering. “We want the Event Center to be as busy as possible for the first year so we can put the building on the map,” he said.
And that’s the idea, said Bob Leffler, a consultant who ran The Leffler Agency, in Baltimore, for many years. “I think everybody that builds these [approximately] 5,500-seat buildings hopes to host a variety of events. It turned out that SECU Arena is perfect at that size, not only for Towson’s basketball team, but for the Baltimore Blast [indoor soccer team, which began play there this season].
“The new arena makes UMBC competitive with Towson, and Coppin [State] and Morgan [State] aren’t far behind,” Leffler said, “and they’re all ahead of Loyola and Hopkins, since [those schools] focus on lacrosse.”
He thinks UMBC’s location, just off of I-95 and near BWI Thurgood Marshall Airport, works in its favor. “Many years ago, there was talk of an 18,000-seat arena at UMBC, and I did a study to address its potential income,” Leffler said. “It turned out that [what was then known as] USAir Arena, in Landover, was too close.”
Terry Hasseltine, executive director of Maryland Sports, agreed with Leffler that UMBC is in “an ideal location and is in a great market for mid-sized acts. The challenging part is fitting in the athletic and school-scheduled events with the events they can secure.
“Know that conference schedules come out a year in advance,” Hasseltine said, “and just because you can book doesn’t mean you can convert [the facility to the setup for the next event]. It takes lots of human power to set up a concert floor after a basketball game.”
E.J. Narcise is principal with Rockville-based Team Services LLC, which is brokering the naming rights to the UMBC Event Center; the company also brokered the SECU Arena deal; the University of Maryland’s deal with Comcast for the Xfinity Center, which was $1.5 million per year for 25 years; and many others.
He hopes the UMBC numbers are similar to those of Towson, but for 15 years. “UMBC is similar to Georgetown, as they are both driven by academics and research,” said Narcise, “but know that Freeman Hrabowski also understands how athletic prowess grows the image of the school.”
He said that looking for a partner is less about branding than finding a partner that wants to grow within the UMBC environment.
“We’re selling a campus-wide partnership. The idea is to construct a bridge between UMBC and whoever buys the rights, drive traffic both ways, and give both parties new insights into UMBC,” said Narcise, adding that the pool has been narrowed to a handful of potential partners, “all of which will be involved with UMBC in some way, anyway.”