Whether or not the Chicago Bears seek money from Arlington Heights taxpayers to help build a new stadium, it’s almost certain that the team would ask fans to pony up. And it could be a lot, based on the financing for the past few NFL palaces.
If the franchise follows through with its apparent plan to move to the northwest suburb, those funds would most likely come through the sale of personal seat licenses, the hefty one-time purchases that give their owners the right to buy season tickets each year. New venues that debuted in the Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Atlanta, Bay Area and Minneapolis markets over the past seven years leaned heavily on proceeds from such PSL sales to finance their construction. The Buffalo Bills said last month they will sell them to help fund a new $1.4 billion stadium.
PSLs are a familiar concept for the Bears, which sold such licenses ranging from $765 to $8,500 that collectively raised more than $50 million toward the $690 million renovation of Soldier Field in 2002—licenses whose value would evaporate should the team ditch the lakefront stadium. But ticket market experts say those costs would likely pale in comparison to the PSL rates the team could charge to back a new venue that could easily cost upwards of $2 billion. That stands to test Bears supporters’ financial willingness to help foot the stadium bill for a team that has seemingly inelastic demand for its product, despite years of mostly middling performance on the field and gripes that many fans are priced out of attending games.
“Considering the team’s performance over the last 10 years, they probably have one of the strongest PSL (values) in the league today,” says Scot Tobias, founder of TicketAppraisals.com, a New Jersey-based company that advises PSL owners on the value of their licenses. For the best seats in a new stadium, the Bears could get takers for PSLs at $100,000 apiece, he estimates.
Financing tales from the last five new NFL stadiums illustrate the potential gains and pitfalls of PSLs that could shape how the Bears approach such licenses, which require buyers to purchase the underlying season-ticket package each season to remain valid.
In Las Vegas, the Raiders sold PSLs for 85% of the 65,000 seats at Allegiant Stadium, which opened last year as the team relocated from Oakland, Calif. Prices ranged from $500 apiece to $75,000 for the right to buy the best seats in the building, and the team reportedly pulled in $549 million toward the $1.9 billion cost to build the venue—more than double what they projected the PSLs would generate.
The Los Angeles Rams, which share the new SoFi Stadium in Inglewood, Calif., with the Los Angeles Chargers, had similar success generating hundreds of millions of dollars in seat license funds to help shoulder the project’s $5.5 billion price tag. Buyers of its PSLs paid as much as $100,000 for the right to buy a season’s worth of the priciest tickets in the venue.
It’s conceivable that the Bears—a team that has won just one playoff game in the past 14 seasons—could charge similar prices to those two examples at a new stadium on the former Arlington International Racecourse site, says Patrick Ryan, co-founder of Houston-based ticket pricing strategy firm Eventellect, which has worked with about half of all major U.S. pro sports franchises.
The numbers could be so much higher today, in part, because the team may have drastically underpriced its initial PSLs in 2002, based on the way the market value has jumped. Those who purchased the original Soldier Field PSLs saw the market value of the licenses more than double over their first decade, according to a 2012 Forbes report. In the past six months, Soldier Field PSLs that were originally sold for $765 have traded on the resale market for more than $2,500, according to data from STR Marketplace, which runs the official online PSL marketplace for the Bears and many other NFL teams.
The challenge for the Bears with a new stadium will be pricing PSLs in line with what the market will bear to avoid a rash of ticket brokers snapping them up and trying to flip them for a profit, Ryan says, but to also ensure that average fans who actually want to attend games can afford to buy them.
“The goal should be for the Bears to have a great relationship with their fans for years to come which means getting the PSLs in the hands of buyers who are actually going to attend the games and not just try to flip the individual tickets for profit,” Ryan says. “This may mean leaving some money on the table, but this venue will be very profitable outside of just the Bears business as it will be a great spot to host concerts, Final Fours, and the Super Bowl.”
Other issues can arise from tying PSL pricing to a team’s recent performance, as demonstrated by recently built stadiums for the San Francisco 49ers and Atlanta Falcons.
San Francisco sold out of seat licenses priced from $2,000 to $80,000 before the 2014 debut of $1.3 billion Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, Calif., a run that occurred amid three consecutive years of making the playoffs, including a Super Bowl appearance.
But the team went the next five seasons without a winning record, and PSLs started trading on the secondary market for hundreds or even thousands of dollars less than their original prices, dealing a financial blow to sellers who helped fund stadium construction.
In Atlanta, around 7,000 PSL owners simply stopped paying installments toward their purchases between 2016 and 2020, according to records from the Georgia agency that owns the $1.6 billion Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Those defaults totaled nearly $43 million owed to the Falcons, which could either go after non-payers legally or take back the PSLs and simply sell them to others—assuming they can find buyers. Original PSL prices for the stadium ranged from $500 to $45,000.
“That puts teams in a really tough spot,” says Nels Popp, an associate professor in the sports administration program at the University of North Carolina, whose research focuses on ticket sales. “You need the money and, contractually, these buyers have to pay you. But do you want to be the team that sues your season-ticket holders? That’s a really bad look.”