Ravens set for first test: seat licenses Details of team's plan to raise $60M-$70M to be unveiled today; Fans' costs: $500 to $3,000; Memorial season-ticket prices as low as $170

THE BALTIMORE SUN

The biggest challenge the Ravens will face in selling nearly $70 million worth of seat licenses isn't the price or the newness of the concept.

It's that the team is here.

The Ravens will announce today the first details of their plan to have fans help pay for the team's move from Cleveland to Baltimore by buying "permanent seat licenses." The licenses will be required before most fans can buy a season ticket.

But the licenses are controversial and some cities are more receptive than others. Sports-hungry fans in Nashville, St. Louis and Charlotte gobbled them up while their counterparts in Oakland and Tampa responded with a collective yawn.

Baltimore's reaction to the plan will be watched closely in the industry for what it won't have: do-or-die urgency.

Most teams that have sold seat licenses in recent years demanded near-sellouts before they moved. This gets civic leaders involved and turns the sales campaign into a crusade. The Ravens, however, already have moved here and are tied to a long-term lease.

The team is concerned about this and designed the plan accordingly, scaling back prices, offering easy financing and taking other steps to avoid the inevitable appearance of greed.

The licenses will be priced from $500 to $3,000, putting them near the upper end of prices offered in recent years. But more than half the seats in the new stadium will carry licenses at the bottom two price levels, $500 and $750.

License buyers will be offered interest-free financing for the first few years. And more than 5,000 seats spread throughout Memorial Stadium and the new stadium to be built at Camden Yards will be reserved for single-game sales and won't require a license.

The Ravens also are not shooting for the moon. They will try to sell less than $70 million in licenses -- it may be closer to $60 million -- well below the $80 million allowed in their agreement between the Ravens and the Maryland Stadium Authority.

The first $5 million will go to the state, and the rest can only be spent on specified moving-related expenses, such as covering the legal bill and paying off stadium leases and training center debt in Cleveland.

Fans wanting season tickets at Memorial Stadium, where the Ravens will play for two seasons while their downtown stadium is being built, will have to put down a $100 deposit for a seat license at the new stadium.

The deposit, however, will be refundable for fans who don't like the choice of tickets and prices at Camden Yards when those are announced later this year. Fans getting their money back can keep their Memorial Stadium tickets but will fall out of line for Camden Yards seats.

Memorial Stadium ticket prices will start at $170 a season ($17 per ticket), and most will be less than $350 per season.

The details will be announced today with sales beginning in coming weeks.

"We spent a lot of time looking at this. The feeling is we have to present it right the first time," said Ravens spokesman Kevin Bryne.

Though not new -- variations of seat licenses has been in sports for decades -- the idea is fast gaining favor in the NFL, especially as a way to pay for stadiums. The NFL has fallen behind other pro sports in new stadium construction.

"They are certainly the rage," said Alan Friedman, editor of Team Marketing Report, a newsletter that tracks the sports business. He says the devices are more popular in football because of the game's relatively short season, which makes season tickets cheaper than other sports. And the NFL has had a hard time winning public financing for stadiums that will be used for only eight regular-season home games.

But the idea is spreading to other sports. The San Francisco Giants baseball team plans to require a one-time "charter seat" fee on 15,000 seats in their new 42,000-seat stadium.

Teams say the fees are needed to defray the high costs of building stadiums or relocating. But critics say many taxpayers will be priced out of stadiums they helped to build, and that team owners, already enriched by the new venues, will receive a second windfall.

"It is another example of where major-league sports will no longer be for the average man or woman to go out and enjoy a game. more and more a business and less a sport," said Joel Bernstein, a Manhattan attorney who is representing season-ticket holders in a class-action lawsuit against Major League Baseball.

Fans are divided on the topic, and the debate is likely to intensify in coming weeks.

"I'm not against it as long as it's a reasonable cost. In comparison to other entertainment packages it's not that bad," said Tom Wetzler, an Orioles season-ticket holder who plans to apply for Ravens tickets.

"We may all have 'suckers' tattooed on our foreheads. But it is an opportunity for Baltimore to be more than a one pro-sport town. It's part of the game these days," Wetzler said.

Bob Leishear, who attended the first Colts game in Baltimore in 1946, recalls the days of $2 tickets and working-class fans. He said he hopes to take in some Ravens games but can't afford a seat license.

"I'm retired, so that's out of my ballpark," Leishear said.

The practice of paying for the right to a seat was common in churches a century ago. It became widespread in sports beginning with colleges, where fans were required to join booster clubs before getting tickets.

A version of the seat license was used to finance Texas Stadium in Irving in 1968. Fans paid between $300 and $1,000 for a bond that paid interest and gave the holder the right of first refusal on a season ticket.

More recently, the Charlotte Hornets sold "charter rights" for their inaugural season, 1988-89. The rights sold for $200 to $600 and have since developed a secondary market. The record was set two years ago when four seat rights were sold for $125,000, or more than $30,000 each, said Clayton Smith, Hornets director of ticket operations.

Such appreciation depends on many factors, and experts warn against seat licenses as an investment. The resale value will be determined by how the team plays, season-ticket prices, restrictions a team applies to resale and demand for tickets.

The owners of the NFL Panthers used licenses to finance their stadium, selling them for between $600 and $5,400 in an attempt to raise $150 million.

Sales, which were launched in the heat of the expansion competition, were initially brisk and raised enough for the team to complete the stadium but slowed. Out of a goal of 60,000, HTC more than 54,000 have been sold, said Panthers spokesman Charlie Dayton.

Fans in St. Louis quickly bought up $70 million worth of licenses last year to pay for relocation expenses for the Rams. A similar drive for the Oilers in Nashville this year fell short of its goal, but the gap was made up by area businesses.

Oakland had the hardest time: sales to pay for stadium renovations that lured the Raiders back to town fell far short of goals. But the licenses were good for only 10 years and were accompanied by some of the highest-priced tickets in the NFL.

Tampa fell so short of its goals this year, despite offering interest on the licenses, that the Buccaneers may move.

Max Muhleman, the marketing consultant who helped design the seat-license campaigns for the Panthers and Hornets, St. Louis, Nashville and now Baltimore, said the concept is a new one that must be clearly explained to fans.

"It takes a popular sport and a popular franchise," Muhleman said.

Pub Date: 5/16/96

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