— Back before Super Bowl III, Joe Willie Namath guaranteed a victory over Baltimore, an outlandish claim for a 17-point underdog. But the New York Jets delivered, becoming the first team from the American Football League to capture an AFL-NFL Championship.
Today, the franchise is looking to establish another first in a different area: the online auction of personal seat licenses. Far from underdogs this time, the Jets may end up the envy of the NFL; the payoff will be far larger than the biggest Vegas wager placed almost 40 years ago on those AFL upstarts.
Since the dawn of the Internet, online auctions have helped sports memorabilia merchants and buyers. In the past few months, for instance, the New York Mets have sold thousands of pairs of seats from soon-to-be-demolished Shea Stadium this way, netting hundreds of thousands of dollars. But this is the first time the medium has been utilized to set the price of PSLs through an auction of 2,000 prime seats at this site, which began Sunday and runs through Oct. 27.
And what will fans procure for their investment? Fifty-yard-line seats are part of the appeal of the Coaches Club package (which starts in 2010 when the new stadium opens), but the ability to stand five yards behind the Jets’ bench and enjoy a 20,000-square-foot clubhouse replete with food, drink and flat-panel TVs is probably even more enticing.
"The idea of doing this came out of our belief that there's nothing like these seats in all of sports," said Matt Higgins, executive vice president of business affairs for the Jets. "If all of your 80,000 seats are the same, it probably doesn’t make sense to auction them."
Since the plan was hatched, the stock market has tumbled, the economy has faltered and most families are cutting expenses rather than earmarking thousands for the right to buy football tickets. Despite the doldrums, David Carter, executive director of the Sports Business Institute at the University of Southern California, sees hope for the Jets.
"There are still affluent sports fans, whether they're face painters or corporations. With 2,000 seats in a market of 20 million people, monetary value should hold," he said. "Even if people are cutting back, they may love football so much they won't cut back there."
Within the first year, the PSLS can be transferred only to a family member. After that, as long as the Jets approve, they can be resold. Noted Carter: "PSLs have monetary value. There’s a viable market for them. You're not flushing money down the drain."
Given the passion of Jets’ fans (who mob the NFL Draft each April and bellow "J-E-T-S! Jets! Jets! Jets!" with little provocation) along with the high incomes ubiquitous in the New York market, it has not been surprising to see PSLs already sell at prices fit for an all-equipped Acura. By Tuesday, one pair had already been bought for nearly $70,000; other bidding had exceeded $65,000, with dozens of bids flooding in for each of the choicest seats.
If PSLs end up averaging $20,000 apiece, that would raise a quick $40 million for the franchise. Bids start at $5,000; tickets themselves will be priced around $700 apiece for eight regular-season games and two preseason games (VIP parking is included).
Still, the Jets realize the world has changed for the worse in the last few months, and they have adapted to that reality. Aside from the original offer to fans to pay off the PSLs over five years at a 6.5 percent interest rate, they recently introduced a 15-year plan at an 8 percent interest rate (of course, they’d also be happy to accept full payment). Also, they’ve lowered the deposit on tickets to $5,000 or 20 percent of the overall cost, whichever is greater. Before, the team planned to demand a $5,000-per-ticket deposit.
This month, the franchise unleashed an advertising blitz aimed at high-wealth individuals. In the Oct. 13 Barron’s, a full-page ad called the Coaches Club offerings "the best seats in sports" and featured a 1960s photo of Namath bedecked in a Shearling jacket and fur-lined collar ("Jets Fans Know Something About Style," the ad proclaimed). Television and radio spots are airing, and all 30,000 season-ticket holders have received a glossy brochure touting the seats, along with 30,000 "yacht owners, plane owners" and others, Higgins said. The cost of the campaign was not revealed.
What if, after all this, the nine-day auction doesn’t meet expectations? "There’s no secondary plan," Higgins said.
Regardless of what happens, the Jets believe more teams will follow their lead. Said Higgins: "I do think this is the future. This is a fair way. Let the marketplace set the price."