Falcons tackle tough task of selling PSLs

Beginning Monday, the Falcons will tackle perhaps their toughest sales job ever — convincing fans, many of them likely in a bad mood from back-to-back losing seasons, to spend tens of thousands of dollars on personal seat licenses for a stadium that won’t open until 2017.

At the Falcons’ new stadium preview center, located on the ground floor of an office building in a tony development off Northside Parkway, a staff of 25 sales consultants hopes to schedule hour-long one-on-one meetings with every season-ticket holder over the next nine months. The sales effort will start with 7,700 club seats, which carry PSL prices of $10,000 to $45,000.

Although common in NFL stadiums around the country, this is the first time an Atlanta pro sports franchise has sold PSLs, which are one-time fees for the right to buy season tickets in a specific seat for the next few decades. While prices have been set for only the club seats, the Falcons plan to require PSLs for all season tickets in the new stadium.

“We are going to do everything in our power to sell this building out with PSLs,” said Michael Drake, vice president of Legends Global Sales, the firm retained by the Falcons to handle the program.

But there’s no shortage of skepticism about how this program will play out in this market.

“It’s like a sticker shock,” said Ron Coleman, a 15-year Falcons season-ticket holder. “It’s a lot of money to think about, and we haven’t won a championship yet.”

“I think (Falcons owner Arthur Blank) misjudged his market on this,” said Mike Maguire, a Falcons season-ticket holder continuously since 1992. “There are a lot more people in New York City willing to spend $10,000 or $20,000 for a seat license on the Giants or Jets than there are people in Atlanta willing to do this.”

Kennesaw State sports economist J.C. Bradbury said PSL sales here will be “an interesting experiment.” But he added that the Falcons have “smart business people” who must have basis for believing the market will bear the prices.

“I don’t think they’re just stupidly throwing the prices up there,” Bradbury said.

Drake said the Falcons used surveys, focus groups and mock presentations over the past eight or nine months to prepare for the start of sales.

“There was a lot of valuable information coming out of that that helped us develop our pricing plan,” he said.

As the cost of new stadiums has soared in recent years, NFL teams increasingly have relied on seat licenses to help fund construction.

The Dallas Cowboys and San Francisco 49ers reportedly raised $500 million or more from PSL sales in their $1.3 billion stadiums that opened in 2009 and 2014, respectively. Falcons officials won’t say how much they expect to raise, but all net proceeds will go toward the cost of building the $1.4 billion stadium.

Quick ballpark math: If the Falcons sell all 7,700 club seats at the prices they’ve set, that will bring in roughly $150 million, including $54 million from the 1,200 lower-bowl seats around the 50-yard line that carry $45,000 fees.

Bradbury expects the market for the priciest seats to include extremely wealthy fans and, to a significant extent, major corporations that will use the seats for business purposes.

The latter alarms fans who worry that close-to-the-field seats will turn over from long-time fans to corporate buyers with less passion for the team.

Robert Chapman has season tickets in the Georgia Dome’s lower bowl, at the 50-yard line on the Falcons’ sideline. He said he is surrounded by die-hard fans who tailgate, wear Falcons gear and cheer for the team through thick and thin. But comparable seats in the new stadium will require $45,000 PSLs, which Chapman said will entirely change the dynamic in that section.

“Those seats will go to corporate ownership, not loyal Falcons fans as we have been there,” said Chapman, who has had season tickets since the 1980s and whose family has had them since the ’60s. “You’ll have people in those seats who are twiddling their thumbs instead of yelling for the Falcons.”

As in other NFL stadiums built in recent years, club seats — seats attached to lounges with food and beverage service — largely move into the lower bowl from their traditional location in the middle bowl. Chapman said that change will result in a “double whammy” of charging fans in the close-to-the-action seats a lot more money for perks they don’t want.

“The fans in my section enjoy tailgating and then coming in and eating pizza, drinking beer,” he said. “We’re not interested in champagne and caviar. We’re football fans.”

The PSL prices set so far cover all lower-bowl seats between the 20-yard lines and small sections of middle-bowl seats between the 30s above the suites. That leaves more than 60,000 not-yet-priced seats elsewhere. A big question is how many fans priced out of the best seats will relocate and how many will bolt.

“We believe there is going to be plenty of opportunity for our fans to sign up and be in this building for 30 years,” Falcons CEO Rich McKay said. “Our prices will be fair and inclusive at the end of the day. … We won’t get to those (non-club) seats until probably June, so there’s a little time to play out.”

Bob Hope, a long-time Atlanta marketing executive with much experience in sports, believes the Falcons will be able to sell the seat licenses — eventually.

“Atlanta has six million people, plenty of sports-sponsoring corporations, a lot of money,” Hope said. “But it’s not going to be like an Elton John concert where you announce tickets are on sale and they’ll be gone in 15 minutes. The Falcons are going to have to get out there and find the folks who have the money and are willing to make the commitment.”