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Mariners / MLB

Wednesday, February 21, 2007 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Suite life of sports, Safeco Field changing

Seattle Times staff reporter

The Mariners' rebuilding plan will continue until opening day, but this project has nothing to do with the roster.

Eight luxury suites down the right-field line at Safeco Field weren't overhauled so much as they were eliminated this offseason. The walls were knocked down, making room for the All-Star Club, which will give fans the chance to buy a luxury-suite experience one seat at a time.

"Those people aren't interested in buying a suite for 16 people," said Bob Aylward, Mariners executive vice president. "They are interested in having a suite-level experience for two or four or six or eight seats."

They are less expensive than a luxury suite, there are more neighbors and even larger implications in the economics of stadiums and arenas. The Wall Street Journal characterized the remodeling of Safeco Field as part of a national trend as teams respond to the decline in demand for luxury suites. The paper's report Saturday cited several companies that reduced their use of luxury suites, and mentioned facilities all over the country and across different sports changing their suite configuration or sales packages in response to the change in demand.

The trend may be national, but there are implications locally. Suite sales declined slightly at Safeco Field the past few years and have plummeted at KeyArena, one reason the team's lease became a losing proposition.

The Sonics' proposed arena in Renton would include about 50 suites, but owner Clay Bennett is reluctant to rely exclusively on the conventional luxury-suite model.

Safeco Field opened in 1999 with 67 luxury suites and subsequently added another suite on the press-box level. For the first few years, 98 to 99 percent of the suites were filled, said Aylward. He said last year's percentage was in the mid- to upper-80s.

Aylward then talked to someone with the Detroit Tigers who mentioned the team's success with a new type of premium seating.

"We started talking about how they had discovered a new niche market that people really seemed to spark to," Aylward said.

The 140 seats in the All-Star Club will sell for $100-$125. Tickets are sold in packages of 10, 20, 40 and 81 games. Single-game suites, which include 16 seats, range from $2,400 to $4,000.

The All-Star Club came out of a realization that there was a consumer need that was not being met.

"There is this bucket of people out there that we didn't have a product to offer," Aylward said. "So any business is going to sit there and say, 'Let's create something for them.' "

The All-Star Club has three rows of assigned seating in an open-air terrace and then an indoor dining area and complimentary buffet. Beer, wine and spirits will be sold at a cash bar. Plasma televisions will be located throughout the indoor dining area.

The groundwork has been laid at Safeco, but it's too early to walk on it just yet. Large composite flooring tiles aren't quite ready for foot traffic yet and the carpet isn't down. The floor of the hallway is covered in plastic for protection and the counters are wrapped in paper.

The Sonics' proposed arena is in the early design phase, but would include about 50 suites. The team may look at other premium seating options in addition to traditional luxury suites that are removed from the floor.

"He [Bennett] is very sensitive to that issue in terms of making sure you have just the right mix," said team spokesman Jim Kneeland.

Luxury-suite sales have been a sore spot for the Sonics for a number of years. The team cited the arrival of Safeco and Qwest as a cause for the downturn in suite revenue, which declined four successive years starting in 2001. Five suites were converted into club-level seating in 2004 and another five were changed over in 2005. There are now 48 suites.

The Seahawks have 105 luxury suites at Qwest Field and they were filled to capacity last year. All but three of those suites are filled with multiyear contracts. They aren't looking at transforming any luxury suites into a suite-level club, but could consider that type of "party suite" concept if the northern terraces of Qwest Field are expanded, said senior vice president John Rizzardini.

Across the street at Safeco Field, 40 percent of the seats in the All-Star Club have been sold for the upcoming season, most of them sight unseen. The remodeling project changed the footprint of the suite level at Safeco Field and it could leave fingerprints on the future of arena design.

"Facilities have been evolving ever since I came into this business 30 years ago," Aylward said.

"We just keep getting smarter as a result of listening to our customers."

Seattle Times staff reporter Jim Brunner contributed to this report.

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