CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Belong Forever.
That’s the Carolina Panthers’ marketing campaign to persuade fans to buy Permanent Seat Licenses, which gives someone the right to buy season tickets for a “lifetime” of football at Bank of America Stadium.
But as the team negotiates with the city of Charlotte for $125 million in public money for stadium renovations, some fans have questioned what their PSLs guarantee them.
The truth: A PSL is only permanent and forever for as long as the team stays in Bank of America Stadium.
“Your PSL is worthless if the team moves,” said Mark Wattles of Charlotte, who said he bought two PSLs for $3,600 each when the franchise first came to Charlotte. “I never thought it was much of an investment. I did it because I wanted to see football.”
The Panthers are publicly committed to staying in Charlotte and continuing to play at their stadium, which opened in 1996. Experts who follow the NFL say it would make no sense for the Panthers to leave Charlotte, a fast-growing and prosperous city that has supported the team.
But that prospect of the team moving – however remote – is playing a part in negotiations with the City Council.
Some council members and business leaders are worried about the long-term future of the Panthers. The will of majority owner Jerry Richardson reportedly calls for the team to be sold within two years of his death, according to a source close to the team. The fear is that a new owner could easily move the team to Los Angeles, which doesn’t have an NFL franchise.
As part of their debate, some city council members have said in closed session that spending tax dollars could be a way to contractually keep the team in Charlotte for a decade or so.
While the team is meeting with the city about anchoring the team to Charlotte, the team is marketing PSLs as a way to belong forever.
The fine print from an original PSL contract, however, states that the PSL owner has the right and obligation to buy tickets “for the franchise for as long as the team plays in the Stadium.”
That could theoretically be forever. Or it could be as short a timeframe as 2015 or 2025.
But the contract also has some protection for those who own seat licenses.
PSL owners wouldn’t be required to spend more money if the team renovates the stadium. In other words, if the Panthers are playing at Bank of America Stadium, the team can’t make a seat holder pay twice. However, the team could raise season ticket prices, which a PSL owner is obligated to purchase.
The Panthers were the first NFL team to ask fans to buy seat licenses, a financing plan that allowed private money to pay for all of the stadium’s $187 million construction price. Taxpayers spent $60 million on infrastructure for the facility.
The PSL concept was controversial but was wildly successful. Sports consultant Max Muhleman, who worked with the team in creating the seat license concept, said he remembered the team getting sacks full of mail soon after the application period opened.
The sacks were full of PSL purchases. In the first day of counting, the prospective team had $40 million in commitments, Muhleman said.
The team’s website says more than 62,000 PSLs have been sold and 1,200 are available. PSLs were created to pay for the stadium’s construction, but they are still a source of revenue for the team.
They range in price from $20,000 per seat in the lower bowl near the 50-yard-line to $2,000 in the upper bowl behind the end zone.
Because the team has struggled on the field, it’s usually cheaper to buy PSLs on the secondary market.
Greg Carl, whose company PSLsource.com sells seat licenses for the Panthers and other teams, said most Carolina seat licenses sell for between $500 and $15,000. The exception, he said, was the team’s glory years when it reached the Super Bowl and NFC Championship games in 2004 and 2006.
He said most people looking to buy seat licenses don’t believe the PSL will last forever, as the team’s marketing suggests.
“I don’t think people are thinking about passing them down to the children,” Carl said. “They know it’s good for the life of the stadium.”
In theory, as each season is completed, the value of a PSL would decrease because Bank of America Stadium is one year older.
Carl said most of his buyers only expect to get 10 years’ worth of football from a PSL.
“Most folks buying don’t ask about depreciating value,” he said.
As the first NFL team to use PSLs, the Panthers – and their fans – are also one of the first teams to confront what would happen to seat licenses in the event of a relocation, however unlikely.
Muhleman said the team has used the possibility of a new owner moving the team as leverage with the city.
“It’s out there, and you can’t eliminate it,” Muhleman said about the possibility of a new owner moving to Los Angeles. “Everyone is hoping a little leverage will help.”
Since the Panthers started PSLs, other NFL teams have followed, including the St. Louis Rams, the Dallas Cowboys, Pittsburgh Steelers and the New York Jets and Giants.
Most of those teams introduced their seat licenses within the last few years.
Muhleman said the Rams introduced their PSLs soon after the Panthers, as a way to lure the team from Los Angeles to Missouri.
He said the Rams sold their seat licenses only for as long as the team’s 30-year lease in its stadium, the Edward Jones Dome. Instead of calling them Permanent Seat Licenses, as the Panthers had, the Rams called them “Personal Seat Licenses,” in an acknowledgment of their lack of permanency, Muhleman said.
The Rams are approaching a break point in their lease in 2014, in which it becomes easier to break their lease if their stadium isn’t among the most modern in the NFL. The team is demanding $700 million in improvements to its stadium, and football experts believe there is a significant possibility the team could return to California.
“The clock has run out (on the PSLs),” Muhleman said.
The Oakland Raiders also sold time-limited seat licenses when the team returned to Oakland from Los Angeles in 1995.
But no professional team that has sold seat licenses has left that stadium. The issue isn’t on the front burner for those who follow professional sports.
Kurt Badenhausen, a writer with Forbes who covers professional sports, said he wasn’t sure about a team leaving a stadium funded by PSLs. The reason: “It’s never happened before,” he said in an email.
The Panthers have told council members they plan to spend $250 million upgrading their stadium. They have asked the city for $125 million, and the team plans to also ask the state for as much as $62 million in financial help.
The team has declined to comment on its plans.
Last year, team President Danny Morrison told the Observer the Panthers want to install escalators to make it easier for fans to reach the upper bowl. In addition, the team wants new, larger video boards.
Morrison stressed that the “bones” of the stadium are good, meaning that no significant structural work is needed.
If the renovations are approved, Muhleman estimates Bank of America Stadium would be structurally and financially viable for another 15 or 20 years.
After that, it would be up to a future ownership group to decide whether to stay in the stadium or seek a new home.
If the team decided to renovate the stadium a second time, PSL owners would probably come close to the team’s marketing pitch of a “lifetime” of NFL football.