There were plenty of empty seats in Mercedes-Benz Stadium as Falcons fans watched their team fall to 1-7 with a loss to the Seahawks on Oct. 27.   
Photo: Curtis Compton / ccompton@ajc.com
Photo: Curtis Compton / ccompton@ajc.com

Defaults top $32 million as some Falcons fans struggle with PSLs

Falcons fans have defaulted on more than $32 million worth of personal seat licenses in Mercedes-Benz Stadium, including $7 million in defaults during the 2019 fiscal year, according to the most recent available data. 

The figures show that buyers have walked away from thousands of seats, likely for reasons ranging from disappointing team performance to personal circumstances, and may help explain some of the much-noticed empty seats at Falcons games this past season. 

Obtained from the Georgia World Congress Center Authority through an open-records request, the figures represent the remaining amount that was owed when seat holders quit making payments on PSLs that were purchased before the stadium opened. The PSLs, which originally ranged in price from $500 to $45,000, often paid in installments over multiple years, are fees for the right to buy Falcons season tickets in a particular seat as long as the team plays in the stadium. 

A default basically means the fan loses whatever money has been paid on the PSL previously, and the Falcons lose a season-ticket holder, although the team can then re-sell the seat license.

The $32,001,679 in defaults as of June 30, 2019 -- the end of the Congress Center’s fiscal year -- was $7.04 million more than had been recorded as of June 2018 and $2.2 million more than had been recorded as of March 2019. It isn’t known how many defaults have occurred since July 2019 because the Falcons, who previously provided the GWCCA with quarterly updates, now are required to do so only on an annual basis.

The records show that seat-license purchases made before the stadium opened in August 2017 totaled $293.5 million, including interest added to accounts annually. Of that, $184.3 million had been paid as of June 30, 2019, and after the $32 million in defaults, $77.3 million remained outstanding. PSL proceeds go toward the cost of the stadium. 

The GWCCA’s records don’t show seat-license sales made after the stadium opened; those sales aren’t reported to the state agency by the Falcons. Because of that and other factors, the Falcons say the overall sales picture is better than the agency’s data might suggest. 

“Any PSL sale after September of 2017 is not on the GWCC paperwork,” Falcons vice president of sales and service Don Rovak said. “Anybody that defaults, if they were to come back or relocate seats, or if we sell to someone brand new … all of those buckets end up putting our brand in a healthier place, obviously.” 

Rovak said the Falcons have sold a total of about 9,000 new seat licenses since the stadium opened, had seat relocations last year affecting another 2,500 seats and, starting next month, expect to have at least 2,500 more seat relocations by fans this year. 

The Falcons fell short of their goal to sell out of seat licenses before the stadium’s opening, and subsequent sales have come from the unsold inventory or by re-selling seats vacated by defaults.

Holders of the seat licenses have the right to sell them to other buyers, rather than defaulting and forfeiting whatever they have paid. But the defaults, which occur when holders don’t make installment payments on the licenses or don’t renew their season tickets, apparently reflect the difficulty in finding buyers. 

Long-time Falcons fan Harvey Johnson, whose two seats in the lower level around the 15-yard line are fully paid, wants to sell his PSLs rather than continue to buy season tickets each year. 

“I still have them, but I have had them on the market for more than a year,” Johnson said. “My PSLs were $5,500 apiece, and I’ve had mine on sale for $4,900. No interest whatsoever.” 

Johnson said his father, now deceased, originally bought season tickets in 1966, the Falcons’ inaugural season. He said the tickets have been in the family every year since then except one (1977, he thinks), and he has renewed them for 2020. But Johnson, 70, is looking to let the season tickets go because he has no family member who wants them. His PSLs complicate the matter. 

“When I bought them, I thought they would be a hot item,” Johnson said. “I hate to say it, but I feel like I’m stuck. Do I walk away from my $11,000 (investment)? It’s just a situation I don’t feel comfortable with.” 

An online marketplace for fans to sell their Falcons personal seat licenses showed 920 listings for a total of 2,153 seats as of Thursday. 

Some fans are very pleased with their PSLs, such as George Monsalvatge, a Falcons season-ticket holder since 2002, who bought two for $500 apiece in the upper deck. He is happy with his seats and the cost. 

“The PSLs were never an investment for me,” Monsalvatge said by email. “They were a fee for getting tickets. I plan to continue going to see the Falcons for as long as I stay in the metro area.” 

Exactly how many people went to Falcons games during the 2019 season is unknown. That is because the Falcons, like almost all pro sports teams, announce “tickets distributed” for each game rather than announcing the actual attendance based on ticket scans. Despite announcing an average of 71,601 for their eight regular-season home games in 2019, empty seats drew attention from fans, media and players, especially after the team’s poor start on the field. 

In 2018, the Falcons organization, which operates Mercedes-Benz Stadium, reported the actual attendance at stadium events to the GWCCA, which owns the facility. But in 2019, the Falcons reported only the announced attendance, or tickets distributed, to the state agency. 

The Falcons said that providing actual attendance figures in 2018 resulted from a “misunderstanding” and that providing only the announced attendance is in accordance with NFL policy. The GWCCA accepted that change after a discussion with the Falcons. 

In 2018, the actual attendance figures showed that on average the Falcons drew almost 9,000 fewer fans per game than announced, and Atlanta United drew almost 6,000 fewer fans per game than announced. At one game that year, the Falcons announced 72,084 while actually drawing 56,470; at one game, Atlanta United announced 41,012 while drawing 32,347. 

A big part of the Falcons’ attendance issues presumably would be solved with improvement on the field after back-to-back 7-9 seasons that included a 1-4 start in 2018 and a 1-7 start in 2019. But the long-term nature of personal seat licenses can prove challenging to fans for a range of reasons.

Ted Ryan, who grew up as a Falcons fan, bought four seat licenses in the upper deck for a total of $6,000 in 2017. But he plans to move from Atlanta to Detroit later this year because of work and to put his PSLs on the market at face value after the 2020 season. Until the seats sell, he expects to retain his season tickets despite the move and sell individual games on the secondary market. 

“I made a mistake that will either cost me money immediately if I ‘default’ on the season tickets or a slow bleed as I buy and flip my tickets while I wait for the PSL to sell,” Ryan wrote in an email. “I have learned my lesson and will never buy a PSL in any sport at any venue again.”

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