If a deal is sealed to build a new Minnesota Vikings stadium, fans may find they're shouldering a big part of the financing burden -- and not through taxes or state funding.
Instead, the plan may include seat licenses, a key financing mechanism in the National Football League and one that isn't receiving much attention in the stadium debate.
If the Vikings employ seat licenses to raise money, fans would buy their seat from the team and pay for game tickets separately, much like condo owners pay separate association dues. Under such arrangements, teams typically offer side benefits like free parking or even locker room access. Fans can also sell their seat license -- like real estate.
Although stadium financing experts say they're likely to be a factor in Minnesota, team officials are guarded about their possible use.
"Personal seat licenses are a vehicle that can be used to help finance a stadium," Vikings Vice President Lester Bagley said. "We have not made a decision as to whether or not to pursue [them]."
For teams, seat licenses are ready money.
Not every seat in NFL stadiums is licensed, but about 60 percent of seats in new stadiums are. On average, and adjusted for inflation, NFL seat licenses have cost about $3,000 each.
Robert Boland, a professor of sports management at New York University, said the NFL has even required seat licenses in the past.
"They're a guaranteed contractually obligated revenue stream that's very important to the stadium builders and lenders in securing the costs of building and constructing a new stadium, Boland said. That's in part because the practice is so lucrative. The NFL doesn't disclose its finances, but Minneapolis-based Conventions Sports and Leisure did a study examining whether seat licenses could help fund a potential stadium in Los Angeles for boosters there.
The study suggests football fans may have paid an average of $6,300 dollars each for NFL seat licenses since 2003.
"I think it's inevitable that the [personal seat license] is going to be part of a new stadium," said David Carter, a University of Southern California professor and stadium consultant. He expects Minnesota fans will hear more about personal seat licenses.
"The key to it, though, is how many will there be, and what's the pricing going to look like?" he said. According to the Conventions Sports and Leisure study, more than 90 percent of the seats for Giants games at the New Meadowlands are licensed. The figure was 70 percent for the stadium the Cowboys opened in 2009. About half of the seats at Eagles home games have seat licenses.
In Minnesota, Vikings fans like P.J. Wiggin are already wary.
Wiggin, a social studies teacher who lives in Fridley, has had season tickets for more than a decade. But he's not ready to ante up for a stadium given the team's record in the post season.
"If I looked at it as an investment opportunity, I could maybe start to justify it," he said. "But an investment in the Vikings is as dangerous as almost any out there, as far as, you know, we've had four Super Bowl losses, we've multiple recent NFC championship game losses. This is a team that has not yet shown that it knows how to win the big games."
Seat licenses may not be the silver bullet of stadium finances, either.
The New York Jets had to slash their fees, some of them in half, to sell their licenses. The Detroit Lions and New England Patriots did not even try to sell seat licenses when they built new stadiums a decade ago.
In Minnesota, one team has tried the plan. The 3,000-seat Legends Club at Target Field works like seat licensing. Memberships sold for either $1,000 or $2,000 each. The Twins won't disclose the proceeds, but Vikings officials estimate the team made about $5 million.
That's pocket change for an NFL stadium. The money may be hard to resist. Based on the NFL average for seat license revenue in the last five stadiums, Vikings fans could put up as much as $240 million dollars for the new stadium.
That would probably count towards the Vikings contribution - on top of any public subsidy.
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