By Tony Grossi
The Morning Kickoff …
PSL? S.O.L.: The majority of people I’ve heard from who own Browns PSLs are not happy with the team’s new ticket policy. What new ticket policy? That’s one of the problems. It wasn’t communicated very clearly.
In case you missed it, the Browns have eliminated PSLs – permanent seat licenses, those one-time user fees that “earned” you the right to buy season tickets in the better seating areas of FirstEnergy Stadium. PSLs are pro football’s version of a night club cover charge.
Eliminating them is great news for people wanting to buy season tickets going forward.
But if you forked over anywhere from $250 to $1,500 in PSLs per seat in 1999, you may feel betrayed, cheated or simply confused. What has happened to that “investment,” you may wonder?
PSLs were the extra cost passed on to fans to build a new stadium in 1999. If we wanted a new Browns team after the old one was stolen to Baltimore by Art Modell, the deal set forth by the NFL was this: We’ll find someone to buy the expansion franchise after you finance a new stadium.
Cleveland did it three ways: by extending a “sin tax” on alcohol and tobacco products sold in Cuyahoga County, which originally was created to finance Jacobs Field; by having the corporate community pony up on 10-year leases for luxury suites and club seats; and by attaching PSLs to season-tickets.
If you could afford them, buying PSLs in 1999 was seen as a civic duty. An NFL hired-gun named Bill Futterer pitched them as an investment. The sales pitch was that PSLs would grow in demand – and value -- as the Browns achieved greatness on the field.
We know how that worked out. The greatness never came. Never came close, in fact. We’re at 12 losing seasons in 14 years. And now that the Browns have removed the PSL cost to new buyers, those old PSLs have become the equivalent of very expensive paver bricks. Good luck selling one of those to recoup your investment.
Refilling an empty stadium: Eliminating PSLs was the brainchild of new Browns President Alec Scheiner. Contrary to what you might expect, he said reaction to the new policy has been positive.
“The main goal in this change was to make our game experience more affordable,” Scheiner told me. “We feel like we’ve accomplished that.”
What people may not have noticed is that Browns games have been attracting consistently dwindling crowds to the stadium.
When the expansion era was christened on Sept. 12, 1999, attendance was at the listed capacity of 73,138. The Browns reached that figure quite a few times in the first five seasons. But in 2005, paid attendance dipped below 70,000 for the first time.
As the double-digit loss seasons mounted, owner Randy Lerner kept changing GMs, coaches and quarterbacks. Reboot after reboot begat fan disgust – not apathy. Now, new owner Jimmy Haslam has inherited a run of 31 home games in a row without a paid attendance over 70,000. And that’s just the announced attendance, not the actual in the stadium, which often is thousands fewer.
In 2012, the Browns’ average paid attendance was 66,632. That was 91 percent of stadium capacity, which ranked 23rd among the 32 NFL teams.
This alarming, consistent fall-off in attendance occurred while Lerner insisted on not increasing ticket prices – against the objections of other owners, who share in the gate receipts.
Haslam now has held the line again. It’s the fifth year in a row for a price freeze, making the Browns’ average ticket cost second-lowest in the NFL. And part of Scheiner’s plan to repopulate the stadium was to remove the obstacle of the PSL as an incentive to lure new ticket-buyers.
“We think it is good for our existing PSL holders and for our fans,” Scheiner said. “We think it’s a win-win. And we’ve heard that from fans.”
Why does he feel it’s a win for existing PSL holders?
“The benefit (of owning a PSL) is there, still,” Scheiner said. “Those PSLs carry a benefit you don’t carry without it. This is a fact. There has been real value in PSLs.”
So when does the value of a PSL increase?
“I think it’s dependent on wins,” Scheiner said. “It’s dependent on fan experience, dependent on a whole lot of things.”
Upgrading the fan experience: Scheiner can’t do anything about the wins. That falls on the shoulders of CEO Joe Banner, GM Mike Lombardi and coach Rob Chudzinski. But Scheiner is charged with improving the Browns’ fan experience.
I asked Scheiner if he has formulated a “master plan” on that count.
“The most important thing we heard was cell phones,” he said. “We are working on getting that fixed before the season. And then we’re working on all other aspects of the game experience – in-game, getting to the game, leaving the game, all other aspects. We’re working towards it (for start of season). And we’ll have more to say about it as the offseason goes on.”
What about a new scoreboard that offers more than just team promotion videos and public service announcements?
“We’ve got to look at all these things,” Scheiner said. “All of these things to me relate to the guest experience. Over time, we have to look at all of them, and we have to look at them collectively.”
To be fair, Scheiner has just been on the job since Jan. 7. He inherited a game-day production that was stale and outdated. At the same time, he is supervising a revamping of the team’s broadcasting operations. He has a lot on his plate.
It is admirable that Scheiner is trying to keep the stadium experience affordable. But he should not forget that the Browns’ best and most loyal customers, the ones who paid a premium for seats when the franchise’s very existence was at stake, feel cheated. They deserve more than WiFi at games.
|Tony Grossi covers the Browns for ESPN 850 WKNR, ESPN 1540 KNR2 and www.espncleveland.com. |
He has covered the Browns with distinction since 1984 and is one of 46 voters for the National Football League Hall of Fame. Email your “Hey Tony” questions to email@example.comFollow Tony on Twitter @tonygrossi
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