College season ticket holders now able to buy guaranteed seat

Published 1:45 am Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Season ticket holders know the annual lament. The cost of prime seats keeps rising, even if the team is lousy.

Now, combine that frustration with cash-strapped college athletics departments, struggling to upgrade aging stadiums, and you’ve got the latest innovation in marketing for big-time athletics — the sports mortgage.

At Kansas, Jayhawk fans who sign up to pay as much as $105,000 over 10 years will earn the right to buy guaranteed top seats for football over the next three decades. In return, the seats themselves will stay locked in at 2010 prices.

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California fans have even more latitude — 30 years to pay for a half-century’s worth of season football tickets. Like a home mortgage, the long-term deal requires the equivalent of annual interest payments.

The new pricing plans are known as “equity seat rights,” and are being pitched as a win-win for fans and teams. Die-hard fans can be certain of what they’ll pay to see their favorite team well into the future — and can always sell tickets in the secondary market while taking a tax write-off for donating to a school. Teams can bank on extra revenue and avoid borrowing.

Stadium Capital Financing Group, the Chicago company behind the change, says it has the potential to transform how both college and pro teams court their most loyal fans. They’re confident sports mortgages will overtake the personal seat license, which doesn’t necessarily lock in ticket prices.

The only trick now is convincing fans it’s a good deal.

“Even in difficult financial times, the price of the best seats in professional stadiums and university programs go up,” said Lou Weisbach, Stadium Capital Financing’s chief executive officer. “This is the ultimate solution for the shortfalls universities are facing in their athletics programs.”

At Kansas, mortgage sales are being targeted at the new 3,000-seat Gridiron Club, an addition to 90-year-old Memorial Stadium in Lawrence that will offer its members cushioned seats, catered food, private restrooms and preferred parking.

The school hopes the sales will not only cover the costs of $34 million in stadium renovations but eventually will raise a total of $200 million — without going into debt or relying on tax dollars.

That would pay for renovations to Allen Fieldhouse, home of the Kansas basketball team, and build a new “Olympic village” for the Jayhawk track and field, soccer and swim teams. Another $40 million would go toward academics.

Still, problems remain. The Gridiron Club’s planned opening for the 2010 season has been delayed since the school has only been able to raise about $5 million of the needed $34 million, said Jim Marchiony, associate athletics director.

The football team’s 2009 performance likely didn’t help. After winning its first five games, the Jayhawks lost seven in a row. The season ended with the resignation of coach Mark Mangino amid allegations of mental and emotional abuse of players.

“It has been a challenge,” Marchiony said. “But that’s OK. We knew it would be a challenge. We’re going full steam ahead.”

To make matters more difficult, Kansas acknowledged it has started a separate, internal investigation into the sale of basketball tickets, giving the school another dose of bad publicity. Still, the mortgage sales are continuing.

California has fared far better with what it calls an endowment seating program.

The school has sold more than 1,800 of the 3,000 available seats, collecting $150 million for renovations to its own Memorial Stadium, built in 1923.

The top pricing tier costs between $175,000 and $225,000 and provides University Club members with not only prime seats for the next five decades but also sweeping views of the San Francisco Bay. However, when the 6 percent annual administrative fee is rolled in, a University Club seat worth $225,000 will cost the buyer more than twice that much when paid out over 30 years.

San Francisco lawyer and longtime donor Stu Gordon bought four University Club seats, paid in full. For the 69-year-old former Bear baseball and basketball player, the purchase is about philanthropy, not market value.

“This was a great opportunity to really do something meaningful for the whole athletic program,” he said.

The financing plan emerged from Las Vegas’ failed efforts to build a baseball stadium to lure the Montreal Expos. Nevada lawmakers declined to support a $2 daily room tax to finance the stadium. The team instead moved to Washington and became the Nationals.

Weisbach of Stadium Capital Financing summarized the gist of subsequent conversations: “Why don’t we make the best seats in the arena or stadium into condos?”

The debt-free financing model caught the financial world’s attention. In 2007, Morgan Stanley Principal Investments purchased a controlling share of the company.

Professional teams are also paying close attention. Civic leaders in Sacramento are considering mortgages to generate capital for a new arena for the NBA Kings. So are the owners of London-based Tottenham, a Premier League soccer club.

The pro landscape could be a tougher sell, since the sports mortgages by definition limit a team’s annual income from ticket sales — a concession that both owners and players’ unions would have to embrace.

In Chicago, Weisbach failed to convince the Tribune Co., former owner of the Cubs, to use equity seat rights last year to finance a $400 million Wrigley Field renovation. The media company said the financing plan would violate Major League Baseball rules.