Charlotte FC was awarded Major League Soccer’s 28th club in late 2019. But late last month, the franchise became the first to sell personal seat licenses (exclusive ownership rights for a specific location that can be passed down or transferred) as a prerequisite for purchasing season tickets. Fans who wish to sit anywhere but the “Supporters” section (the area directly behind the East Gate goal line) will pay a one-time seat fee (from $350 to $900) on top of the season ticket price.
With the U.S. economy in the midst of a COVID-19 induced recession, one wouldn’t think this is an ideal time for a pro sports team to ask fans to dig deeper into their pockets–especially not an expansion club in a non-big-four league. In fact, one senior executive at a rival MLS club called the decision “tone deaf on the product and tone deaf on the moment. Honestly, it’s shocking,” he said.
However, Charlotte FC president Nick Kelly explained, “All of the data points and all of the research” indicated there would be little to no resistance to PSLs from fans. The club declined to provide any specifics about their sales figures to date (tickets have not even been on sale for a month). But Kelly said, “Thus far, we’ve been extremely pleased with the reception. [The PSLs] haven’t slowed us down in terms of season ticket conversions from deposits.”
Our Take: The Federal Reserve recently suggested the current U.S. unemployment rate is on par with the worst of the Great Recession, and soccer fans aren’t known to be the most affluent demographic to begin with, so it’s certainly reasonable to wonder if increasing the costs associated with becoming a season-ticket holder is a wise decision. Kelly reminds that PSLs—which are associated with roughly 2/3 of seats in the lower bowl—are just one way for fans to get in to the stadium. There are season-ticket packages on sale outside of the Silver Club that do not require a seat license, and single-game tickets are promised to be available for fans of all budgets. The club president also notes, “[$550] is a lot more of an attainable number and a manageable number [than NFL fans in the city are accustomed to].” Comparable seats for Panthers games would come with a $7,500 or $10,000 seat license.
Historically speaking, MLS clubs haven’t sold PSLs because the demand for season tickets hasn’t been there. And Charlotte is slated to play homes games at Bank of America Stadium—not exactly the new, intimate venue some of the league’s other teams enjoy. But as noted, Charlotte FC didn’t make the decision to sell PSLs off the cuff. Kelly explained the club “did a survey a year and a half ago of existing Panthers season ticket holders, as well as people who had reached out [and expressed interest in putting down a deposit on soccer season tickets]” to gauge fan feeling about the model. Ultimately, said Joe LaBue (vice president, ticket sales and services, Tepper Sports & Entertainment), “The data suggested there was very little difference, if any,” in the fans’ willingness to purchase a season ticket with or without a PSL attached.
Kelly attributes the warm reception to Charlotte being “a bit of a unique marketplace” (i.e., he’s not suggesting this would work in every market). Aside from being a rapidly growing city—one with a heavy corporate finance and tech presence, Charlotte is one of just three top 21 DMA markets without an MLB team (Orlando, Sacramento are the others). “There’s [simply] more discretionary spending as it relates to events and pro sports in the marketplace,” he said, especially during the summer.
Charlotte is also different in that the market has long embraced the PSL concept. “Seat licenses started here,” LaBue reminded. Back in 1987, the Charlotte Hornets awarded “Charter Seat Rights” to the 10,000 individuals who made non-refundable deposits on season tickets (before the NBA had awarded the city a franchise). And robust PSL sales “were a key contributing factor that ultimately lead to the NFL awarding a franchise to the Carolinas in 1993,” LaBue added.
Some 65% of season-ticket holders from the Panthers’ inaugural season still maintain their PSLs today, and unlike in many NFL cities, their investments have apparently increased in value over the last 26 years. “In most cases our PSL Owners are able to sell the rights to their seats for what they purchased them for or close to current market rate,” LaBue said. It makes sense a fan base that has benefited from the purchase of PSLs before would be open to buying them again.
It’s important to note that only Silver Club seats (which include club access and a food-and-beverage credit) will require the purchase of a PSL. Team “supporters” do not have to buy a PSL. “If you’re a ‘supporter’, you don’t pay [for a PSL],” Kelly said. “You’re buying a membership, and every dollar put into [those] memberships is literally being reinvested into the game-day experience and atmosphere in the [two] supporters sections” (think: flairs, smoke, signage).
Should Charlotte find overwhelming success with PSL sales, it’s certainly reasonable to believe teams around the league will look to follow suit. But Kelly reminds, “if you look at the life cycle of [MLS] stadiums, we’re one of the last two or three teams of the 30 potential franchises [without a new building]. Unless one of the [older franchises] builds a new stadium, it’s really only St. Louis and Sacramento who could mirror [the model] at this point.” PSLs would be a tough sell for an existing franchise within its current building.
Note: The story was updated to reflect that all sections except “Supporters” will require purchasing a personal seat license.