Bankof America – Charlotte FC MLS ticket prices have soccer fans upset
Matt Lawson’s original plan was to invest in premium seating.
Access to climate-controlled indoor lounges, unlimited snacks and prime upper-level viewing of the field that will host Charlotte’s Major League Soccer matches beginning in 2022 was what Lawson envisioned. He and a group of 11 others planned to make ticket deposits for the new professional soccer team coming to town.
Already a Carolina Panthers personal seat license owner, Lawson has attended NFL games for years at Bank of America Stadium, the same place Charlotte’s MLS team, Charlotte FC, is expected to start playing at next year. The excitement level was high for buying season tickets for another Charlotte team. Until recently.
“None of us are buying these tickets to re-sell them. We want to be at every single match, at every single game, that’s why we’re contemplating buying,” said Lawson, a 30-year-old medical sales director from High Point. “But I do think there is a situation where they lose a large majority of the fan base before they even kick off.”
On Feb. 19, Charlotte FC released its pricing structure, along with a video explaining seating sections. The video was meant to hype up seat selection and help the club achieve its goal of filling the stadium’s lower bowl, which accommodates around 38,000 fans, including at the club and suite levels.
Instead, the announced ticket prices further inflamed many fans after a report by Sportico previously indicated that Charlotte FC was selling PSLs, or personal seat licenses — exclusive, long-term ownership rights for a specific seat — as a prerequisite for purchasing season tickets.
Comments under Charlotte FC’s video on Twitter read:
Under that: “Me too, I’m out.”
Forget prime viewing. Lawson and his group have scaled back to consider buying the cheapest seats available in the stadium — $980. Among a number of concerns in signing up for another PSL is investing in a fee when Panthers and Charlotte FC owner David Tepper, who has a net worth of $13 billion, per Fintech Zoom, has spoken about wanting to move the club to a new stadium sooner rather than later. PSLs only apply to Bank of America Stadium and are not transferable to a new venue.
“I’ve already come to terms that I’m going to lose my Panthers PSLs,” Lawson said. “It’s soured me on this decision for Charlotte FC because if a new stadium is built in seven to eight years, I think the exact same thing is going to happen.”
Pricing for general seating, too, has fans bristling, some turning away from purchasing season tickets before the team takes the pitch.
Charlotte FC’s cheapest season ticket — outside the standing-only Supporters Section — costs $630 for 18 matches in 2022. When compared to 26 MLS teams’ 2021 prices, Charlotte will rank as the third-most expensive per match; but when factoring in the required one-time PSL fee ($350 at the cheapest), Charlotte FC’s season ticket price per match ($54.44) will be significantly greater than the rest of MLS. Austin FC is the next most expensive at $36.88 per match.
PSL prices range from $350 to $900 and are required to purchase season tickets in all seating locations except the Supporters Section directly behind the East goal. Once the barrier to entry is crossed with the PSL, subsequent season tickets won’t come at such a high cost.
Single match tickets for each section also do not require a PSL, but Charlotte FC is the first MLS club to use a ticketing model that includes seat licenses, a decision that has been criticized by the leadership of other clubs.
“We’re confident that we’ll provide a top-level match-day experience and atmosphere that’s really unique to Charlotte FC,” a team spokesperson said. The team declined to comment further on its ticket-pricing decisions.
For a single season ticket in a mid-pack seat near the centerline, a Charlotte FC fan would pay $2,790, which includes the one-time $900 PSL fee and the $1,890 season ticket cost for the 2022 season. The cost for a similar seat under the same terms for an Atlanta United FC match this season is $1,638 — a difference of more than $1,100. For a family of four, that difference grows to just over $4,600 between the two cities for the same seats. Charlotte’s season ticket package includes 17 home matches, plus one additional Charlotte FC match to be determined. Atlanta United’s season ticket package is for 18 matches.
Supporters Section season tickets for Charlotte FC cost $27 per match, just above the league average of $23.57, while Atlanta United’s Supporters Section is the most expensive per match this season at $31.
St. Louis City SC, an MLS club set to debut in 2023, along with a new soccer-specific stadium, would have an easier pitch to sell PSLs versus Charlotte’s 25-year-old football stadium in Uptown. Carolyn Kindle Betz, CEO of St. Louis City SC, shut the idea down through a statement that said:
“As a local ownership group, our goal has been to use soccer to unite the entire St. Louis region. We believe in being an exceptional club and neighbor and have never considered the use of Personal Seat Licenses and never will.”
THE CITY’S SEAT LICENSING HISTORY
The origins of the PSL are a uniquely Charlotte concept. The idea for professional sports teams to use PSLs was pioneered by Charlottean Max Muhleman. Fans can make a one-time purchase of a license to guarantee they’d be in the same spot every year when they bought season tickets.
Muhleman invented the PSL for the N(BA)’s Charlotte Hornets in the late 1980s, working as a sports marketing consultant. He suggested giving fans what were then called “Charter Seat Rights.” Those rights were given to season ticket-holders free of charge, meaning they held the rights to buy season tickets to their same seats every year and could also sell those rights to someone else.
When it came time to pitch an NFL expansion franchise, Muhleman proposed to then-Panthers owner Jerry Richardson that the team charge between $600 and $5,400 per seat for the rights to a spot in the new stadium and, on top of that, they also had to commit to purchasing season tickets annually. The model also had a clear purpose — to finance the construction of a potential stadium and convince the other 28 NFL owners there were people around Charlotte willing to put up money for a professional football team.
Now the soon-to-be third major league pro sports team in Charlotte is following the same model as the teams that came before it, but with less of a concrete incentive that can be used to show why this model is an effective approach meant to benefit the fan.
“Fan is short for fanatic, people who really care about sports. That’s what makes a sports audience different than an opera audience. That passion is going to make them want the best possible connection to their team,” Muhleman said. “You can’t own stock in the team, but you can own your tickets, essentially, if you have the PSL control, and that’s worth something to every fan group to some degree, and the price in question is, what is that degree.”
Charlotte FC president Nick Kelly told Sportico last week that the team’s research indicated fans would be receptive to PSLs and that they “haven’t slowed us down in terms of season ticket conversions from deposits.”
He described Charlotte as “a bit of a unique marketplace” in which there is more discretionary spending for entertainment events and professional sports. Charlotte does not have a Major League Baseball team, for example, which could funnel general sports fans to soccer.
According to demographic data provided to The Observer by the league, MLS has the highest percentage of fans who identify as Millennial (39%), female (42%) and Hispanic (33%) when compared to the percentage of fans who identify in those groups for other professional sports leagues, including the NFL, N(BA), MLB, NHL and NASCAR. Additionally, nearly half of MLS fans (48%) are parents, whereas 34% of NFL fans have one or more children. The research provided was conducted within the last two years, mainly in 2019, through a combination of sources, including the Harris Poll, Scarborough and Simmons Research.
What a younger and more family oriented fan base for MLS could mean is that the cap for discretionary spending among Charlotte FC fans is lower than for that of Panthers fans. A young family of four in Charlotte — where the unemployment rate has increased 2.7% between December 2019 and December 2020, per the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics — might not be willing to spend $3,920 for the cheapest season tickets in 2022.
‘THIS IS NOT SOMETHING WE CAN DO’
Charlotte FC has already garnered avid fans. There are at least seven supporters groups associated with the team, most of which are based in Charlotte with some in surrounding areas near Gastonia, Belmont, Winston-Salem and parts of South Carolina. One of the largest supporters groups, Mint City Collective, is Charlotte-based and includes around 2,000 members.
David Gusler, president of Mint City Collective, said the response to season-ticket prices among members has been mixed. Some fans, including Gusler, always intended to stand in the Supporters Section and are not directly impacted by the PSL fees. Others have not been deterred from placing deposits for general seating and plan to follow through with seat selection when it opens March 15, while still others have been priced out or may opt for single-match tickets.
Southbound & Crown, a supporters group representing fans in South Carolina, said that it does not support the implementation of PSLs and that there “has not been a lot (or any) communication to supporters about their use for general seating.”
“Things need to change — and quick — if Charlotte FC is to have a community like the Panthers or Hornets,” Southbound & Crown coordinator Michael Gallemore said in an email. “ … We have fans in Greenville that can and would make the drive to Charlotte, but with these prices, they can go to Atlanta to see a trophy-winning team for cheaper.
“While (Charlotte FC’s) goal may be specifically the Charlotte metro area, there is a chance to build something regional,” Gallemore wrote.
The overwhelming sentiment among supporters groups around PSLs has been, “This is not something we can do,” according to Dave Dowell, a founder of Queen’s Firm, a roughly 400-member Charlotte FC supporters group that was formed in 2017, two years before Tepper and the city were granted an MLS expansion bid.
Dowell said he was surveyed by Charlotte FC a year ago, before the pandemic, along with other ticket-deposit holders and individuals on the team’s mailing list. The survey included hypothetical ticket pricing to gauge fan preferences, and included a PSL option, indicating the club was considering the model at the time.
Charlotte FC declined to provide more information on its ticketing research and did not provide its latest number of ticket deposits or sales. In December, Tepper Sports & Entertainment president Tom Glick said Charlotte FC had secured 10,000 season-ticket deposits for 31,000 seats; those deposits are refundable.
Glick said at the time that soccer-friendly enhancements to Bank of America Stadium, which includes new locker rooms, a center tunnel entryway for players, the standing-only Supporters Section and newly built TV platforms, were all on schedule to be completed despite the pandemic.
Other plans, including the team’s original inaugural start in 2021, have changed over the course of the year. Last fall, the city reduced the amount it was reimbursing TSE, the Tepper-owned holding company that backs the Panthers and Charlotte FC, for the originally planned MLS headquarter development at the former Eastland Mall site, where the team’s Academy headquarters will be located. Charlotte City Council approved $25 million of taxpayer money in November towards enhancing Uptown, with at least a portion intended to go toward the stadium renovations specifically. TSE was expected to at least match the public funds to support the scheduled renovations.
CALL FOR TRANSPARENCY
Supporters group leadership has said they understand the need for revenue through ticket sales, especially considering the stadium renovations, the record $325 million MLS expansion fee paid by Tepper and the Panthers’ multi-million dollar practice facility developing in Rock Hill, which has the potential to host soccer events in the future as a multi-use sports-and-entertainment venue.
“There’s a balance between running a business and being a fan, obviously,” Dowell said. “What we would like to see is if PSLs are absolutely necessary for Charlotte FC to be successful, how are the PSLs and the money that comes from it going to make the club successful?”
He said that greater communication from the front office about how ticket revenue will be used might make PSLs an “easier pill to swallow” as a fan.
Giving the fans something other than the rights to buy seats is also a key piece to the success of a PSL model, according to Muhleman. The original Panthers’ PSL owners have their names inscribed outside the stadium. First access to other events at the stadium run by TSE, or PSL-owner-only events, are among other potential offerings.
“Those pieces are the important pieces to making the PSL valuable,” Muhleman said. “Because in and of themselves just the price, with no articulated benefit, is risky.”
Charlotte FC declined to disclose details regarding revenue allocation but noted that stadium upgrades would include a Supporters Section bar in the concourse near that area with enhanced food and beverage options, enhancements to the East Gate to make entry more pedestrian-friendly and soccer-specific digital signage for match day.
Charlotte FC referred The Observer to the team’s website, noting the 12-month interest-free payment plan available for seat licenses.
“A seat license provides exclusive benefits throughout the year such as partner offers, insider access to Charlotte FC news and events, and merchandise discounts,” the website reads. “In addition, your seat license purchase will help contribute to creating a top-level match day experience through a number of soccer-specific changes to the stadium and fan enhancements.”
Charlotte FC also issued the following statement through a team spokesperson:
“We encourage anyone who has concerns to contact the ticket office so we can work with them to find a solution that’s best for them.”
Lawson and Dowell were among many fans who said they would like clearer answers from the team regarding its demand for PSLs, especially in the wake of the club announcing high season-ticket prices.
“There’s that dialogue between the supporter’s groups and the front office and Charlotte FC needs to honor that timed tradition and be open, communicate and tell us what the plan is,” Dowell said, adding that he’s a Charlotte native who got a crown tattooed on his arm in support of Charlotte FC.
“That’s the kind of fan that comes to soccer. That’s the kind of fan that wants to support Charlotte FC. We want to have that good relationship with them.
“It’s up to the club. I hope they do the right thing. Talking is easy. It’s free.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story said Atlanta United’s season ticket package is for 17 matches. The season ticket package includes seating for 18 matches.
Bankof America – Charlotte FC MLS ticket prices have soccer fans upset
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