During trying season, market falls for Ravens' personal seat licenses

The Ravens have an opportunity Sunday to brighten a stormy year by securing a postseason berth. The team’s late-season turnaround could mean not only a playoff run, but an improved outlook for fans looking to unload their personal seat licenses.

“The market definitely fell in Baltimore,” said Pat Smart, a Cecil County broker who buys and sells personal seat licenses the way other people trade stocks. “I’ve been in it for 19 years and I’ve never seen the market this soft.

“We’re thinking it could be a lot of reasons.”

He cites players kneeling during the national anthem to protest racial inequity and police brutality. There’s also an inconsistent performance on the field — the team started the season 4-5, and has lost both its meetings to the archrival Pittsburgh Steelers.

But a 5-1 run over the last six weeks has brought the team to 9-6 going into the final weekend. And if they beat the Cincinnati Bengals at M&T Bank Stadium on Sunday, they’ll be in the playoffs for the first time since 2014.

Depending on the outcome of other games, they might get in even with a loss. And postseason success could elevate the value of the licenses.

That would be a welcome boon to sellers, including some who say they have abandoned the team over player protests. One fan said licenses currently are “as bad as a penny stock.”

The Ravens require fans to acquire the licenses before they may purchase season tickets. Fans own the licenses as long as they renew their tickets each year. Season tickets currently range from $676 to $3,826; they grant admission to two preseason games and eight regular season games.

The Ravens sold out of their licenses in 2004; the team’s waiting list has 2,500 names. When licenses become available, the team offers them for anywhere from $750 to $8,000, depending on location.

The licenses are transferable — holders are permitted to pass them on to family members or friends. They may also sell them, either privately or through the team’s online marketplace. Fans have taken advantage of hot markets to turn profits on their licenses.

But the market now is softer than a deflated football. In many sections around the 71,000-seat stadium, the majority of licenses are available for less than face value — often substantially less.

The Ravens say they are not concerned about the current state of the market. Baker Koppelman, the team’s vice president for ticket sales and operations, said the number of postings on the official site — accounting for nearly 4,000 seats — “is within the spectrum we have seen” in the last dozen or so years.

“Having a healthy PSL market of buyers and sellers is the primary goal,” Koppelman said. “Every market is subject to the forces of supply and demand and, historically, there have been ups and downs.

“It’s up to the buyers and sellers to determine when they think the time is appropriate to get involved.”

As the team made its Super Bowl run in the 2012 season, many fans doubled or tripled their initial investments by selling on the open market. Some said they didn’t know when M&T Bank Stadium opened in 1998 that allegiance to an NFL team could pay off not only in pride, but in actual money.

Now seat licenses for corner club-level seats with a face value of $2,000 are available for as little as $500 apiece.

Bargains are also available in lower-level sideline sections. The team charges $5,000 for those licenses, but many could be had for between $2,000 and $2,500.

Catonsville retiree Jim Daly shelled out $2,800 in 1998 for six Ravens licenses. He sold them a decade later for $13,000.

After Daly heard about the current state of the market, he joked last week that “I was beating my chest even more than before.”

Season ticket holder Ford Loker questioned the Ravens’ waiting list. The team charges fans $50 to get on the list, and $25 annually to stay on it.

Loker asked why so many people would pay to stay on a list if the team’s prices are above those available on various online sites.

“The main story to me is the myth that the Ravens put out there that there’s this gigantic, hungry waiting list of avid fans,” he said.

Koppelman said there are advantages to being on the list.

“Through the years, we have found that newer members of the wait list are typically fans who are not ready to buy, but want to be positioned to jump on board down the road,” he said. “The list option provides some price protection if the market is hot when their turn comes up.”

Loker and stadium neighbor George Church decided recently that they’ve had enough of attending NFL games.

Church said he remains angry over players kneeling during the national anthem. He posted an open letter to the Ravens on Facebook in September calling the protests a disgrace to “our country, our flag, our anthem” and the city.

Loker said he’s had trouble finding people to come to games.

Their discontent only increased when they discovered that the market for seat licenses had plunged this season, making it difficult to unload them at anywhere near the $3,000 they each paid more than a decade ago.

“It’s as bad as a penny stock,” Loker said.

There are several theories for the market’s tumble.

The NFL and the Ravens have faced challenges this year on multiple fronts. In addition to fan anger over the anthem protests, there have been injuries to star players, fresh concerns about the long-term effects of hits and concussions on players’ brains, complaints about the length and outcome of replay reviews and inconsistent play. High-definition televisions, which have improved in quality and come down in price, are enticing many fans to spend Sundays in their living rooms or basements.

In a recent letter to season-ticket holders, suite holders and sponsors, Ravens president Dick Cass acknowledged that it has been an unusual season. He pointed to the Ravens players who did not stand during the anthem before the team’s 44-7 loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars in London in September.

“We have had significant numbers of no-shows in the past when our play on the field has not met the high standard we and you have set for the Ravens,” Cass wrote. “But this year has been different. The numbers are higher, and it is noticeable. There are a number of reasons for the no-shows, but surely the one-time protest in London has been a factor. We have responded to your concerns about the protest by re-doubling the efforts of both the organization and our players to make the Baltimore area a better community. We have also reached out to a number of you who wrote or called about the protest.”

Season-ticket holder Russ Lease of Columbia bought eight licenses in Section 526 years ago for a total of $16,000.

He said the falling market “is not at all the Ravens’ fault. It's just the way the market has panned out. PSLs — and tickets — are expensive and the local market is maxed out in terms of affordability.”

Licenses in Lease’s section are priced by the Ravens at $3,500 per seat.

“That sounds like a reasonable increase in value, but that's an illusion,” Lease said. ”The actual value for my seats on the open market currently is at or only slightly above what I paid for them.”

Church’s and Loker’s seats are together in the same upper-level midfield section as Lease’s. They sold the licenses online recently for about $550 apiece — 16 percent of the team’s listed price.

Many fans in comparably priced sections are asking more than twice as much for their licenses.

“Quite honestly, I just wanted to be done with it,” Church said. “As I said in my open letter, if I couldn’t sell them, I was ready to forfeit them back to the team.

“I wanted to list them at a price that I assumed would generate an offer. Even at $550 apiece, I only had interest from this one guy. It appears there’s not a great demand, even at fire sale prices.”

Other NFL teams — including the New York Jets and San Francisco 49ers — have seen fans complain about losing money selling seat licenses.

Some franchises — including the Philadelphia Eagles, a surprise this season at 13-2 — are seeing values rise.

The Philadelphia “market is very hot,” said Smart, the broker. “If a PSL would sell two years ago for $10,000, today it is $14,000 or $15,000.”

Smart said the Ravens prices likely would rise if the team makes a playoff run.

“The Ravens are going to come back,” Smart said. “It’s like the stock market is down. So maybe now is the time to buy.”

jebarker@baltsun.com

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