What Season Ticket Prices Can Say About a League

Charlotte FC’s Inaugural Season Ticket prices have caused a stir, but why is this only part of a bigger issue?

So you all may have wondered, since I am an American, why I have not delved more into the stories of Major League Soccer? Surely there is plenty to talk about related to how the league is growing and how football in America is growing, right? And you would be correct, for sure.

But I have not touched MLS as a topic until now because, for the most part, it is a league I do not know much about. I do not really have a team I support in MLS. Growing up in North Carolina, the closest MLS team to me for most of my life was DC United, residing in Washington, D.C. The nation’s capital was a whopping six and a half hour drive from where I grew up, making the idea of going to games nearly impossible. It also never really felt like a “local” team to me. I never had a connection to them. As a Southerner, I wanted to support a team in the South, even if I did question whether a MLS team could work in the Southern United States, where American football seemed to be the sport that nothing could take attention away from.

That changed in 2015 initially, when Orlando City SC entered the league as an expansion team, becoming the first Southern team to join MLS. For those who do not know, there is no promotion and relegation in MLS, so teams join the league as “expansion teams”, who sometimes existed in lower leagues before they joined or are just completely new teams. There is no sporting requirement to be an expansion team, just a need to be backed by rich owners who can pay an expansion fee of a couple hundred million dollars to the league and demonstrate that there is a viable football market in that location. Orlando City existed before, so they got a team in MLS due to interest already being there. Despite a fully Southern team joining the league, I still was not sold. A Southern team was nice, but I just did not have that connection.

And that changed when Atlanta United joined in 2017. They felt local. Being only three and a half hours from where I grew up in North Carolina, going to games (though I have never been to one) seemed much more simple. It was a team with a very Southern identity, one that attracted a very large and passionate fanbase, and one that, under then manager Gerardo “Tata” Martino, played a very fun and aggressive style of football. They have fallen off a bit since Martino left to become manager of the Mexican National Team, but they are still the main Southern team in the league. Nashville SC, in Tennessee, has since been added, but the main draw for me was still Atlanta.

And then came the announcement that Charlotte was getting a team. This was the project of David Tepper, the owner of the Carolina Panthers, the American football team in Charlotte. Since he purchased the Panthers, he was outgoing and public about his desire to bring a MLS team to the city. His success makes him the richest individual owner of a MLS team and second only to City Football Group, the owners of New York City FC (and obviously Manchester City), when factoring in all ownership groups as well. Surely he would hire the right people, sign the right players, and put the pieces together to make Charlotte like Atlanta United and Los Angeles FC in becoming an immediately successful expansion team.

I was born and raised in Charlotte, so I was very excited that my home city was getting a team. Finally, a truly *local* team for me to support. I was willing to look past the fairly bland name, Charlotte FC, and the fairly “meh” badge to still be excited. The team’s entry into MLS had to be pushed back to 2022 due to the COVID Pandemic, but I was still excited. No major sporting announcements have been made aside from a few random signings from small European leagues, understandable due to the team’s timeline of entry into the league, but I was still excited. I was not alone, as the team racked up tens of thousands of season ticket deposits, reportedly outpacing the rate of other expansion teams. The interest and positive buzz was palpable.

And then the ticket prices came out, and the positive energy seemed to dissipate.

These prices are very high, some of, if not the most expensive in the league, and this is without considering the one-time seat license fee. For an expansion team with I think four players and no manager to be asking for $630 for the cheapest season ticket package is patently absurd, and it quickly put me off any minor interest I had in season tickets. I could probably buy season tickets for Atlanta United and drive from North Carolina to Atlanta for every game for less than buying season tickets for my home town team.

I will take a second to explain the seat license fees, as this is something that is very American in nature. It is called a Personal Seat License, and it is fairly connected to sports history in North Carolina, as the idea of Personal Seat Licenses really came into full swing with basketball’s Charlotte Hornets and American football’s Carolina Panthers before becoming very common with many American football teams in particular. Basically, the person needs to pay a one time fee for the literal seat in the stadium, which gives that person the right to buy tickets for games in that seat once the license is purchased. You need to buy the seat, and then you can buy tickets for that seat.

It is a scam. Let’s not beat around the bush here; Personal Seat Licenses are a scam. There is zero justifiable reason to make a fan buy a literal seat before having the opportunity to buy tickets. It is a money-making mechanism. Many teams implement these licenses when they move into new facilities or into new cities as a way of passing on some of the cost of moving or constructing the new facility onto the fans. In this case, Charlotte FC owner David Tepper is seemingly passing along the cost of the expansion fee he paid to bring the team into MLS onto the fans.

Charlotte FC are the only team in the league to implement these licenses, and while they likely do have marketing data that tells them their sales will not be hindered by these prices or by these licenses, it is still a very bad look to be the only team using these licenses in the league, dragging up the cost of attendance for an expansion team that has yet to sign a Designated Player or even hire a manager and is playing in a NFL stadium, where the fans will be seated further away from the pitch than in a soccer-specific stadium. Charlotte is a city with quite a bit of banking and high-paying finance jobs in it, but the main demographic that this team markets to are people around my age, teenagers and twenty-something/30 year old young(ish) professionals, who are the main core of the soccer market in America. It also markets heavily to minorities, and the best showing of interest in football in Charlotte (and likely among the examples Tepper used to demonstrate the football market in the city) has come from the city hosting several Mexico matches, which have brought 50-60k fans each time. These prices cater to the rich in the city, those who may already have season tickets to the Panthers or Hornets, as the team tries to be the main summer sport attraction in the city. In the process of doing that, they are seemingly pricing out the core section of the market that they should be attracting to games, the ones who are going to be bought in and want to come back every game in every season, rather than just going to a few to have something fun to do during the summer.

And this is a small example of a problem that is seemingly prevalent in all areas of football in this country: it is a system designed for the have’s and to keep out the have not’s. Charlotte got this team purely because David Tepper has very significant amounts of money, and other expansion team candidates that maybe had a more established culture or market were left in the dust for not having the financial backing that Charlotte had. Instead of making the tickets more affordable to market to the prime soccer-loving demographics and expand the market and fandom, the club marketed simply to those who had the money to help them pay off the expansion fee. In a grander sense, these expansion teams are let into MLS while promotion for teams in the lower leagues in America is left off the table. The have’s, the rich MLS owners, hold the priority over the have not’s, the poorer and smaller lower division sides. Youth development in this country, despite the growing population of minorities who love football, is largely dominated by upper-middle class and rich families, who tend to be white, because the youth development system prioritizes those who can write the biggest check instead of those who can perform at the highest level. I can obviously go into so much more depth on any of these topics, but the point is that there are so many areas of football in this country where money is the only talking point, and this is another example of that phenomenon.

And that is a shame, because there is a serious growing “American soccer culture” in this country. The rest of the world might scoff at that, but it really is true. There is fan culture, there are a lot of people who know football in this country. It is cheesy at times (I’m sure you can find cheesy American fan montages on YouTube) but it is very genuine and very real. Many clubs do work to foster a fan community, and many clubs charge reasonable ticket prices despite their stature and high-level facilities. There are a lot of problems with this American soccer culture (I’m looking at you, American Outlaws), but it is so interesting to see how the culture behind football has grown in this country over the my lifetime. The sport itself is now the fourth most popular sport in America, overtaking ice hockey and gaining quickly on baseball. Yet it seems to be getting lazy, almost willingly leaving that base behind in some cases.

The teams and league almost shy away from a unique culture they could form at times. The team kits are mostly incredibly bland and look like every other team. Charlotte and Miami have seemingly ignored the main viewer market in their cities, Miami especially with their managerial move to hire Phil Neville in one of the greatest acts of football nepotism in recent times. Some expansion teams simply want to throw their teams in NFL stadiums to sell more tickets, trying to be like the Seattle Sounders or Atlanta United atmospheres while ignoring everything that makes those teams playing in NFL stadiums work. Sometimes, it seems like MLS just wants to make money, and it is hard to just skate by as a league when you are not even the only show in town when it comes to football leagues. MLS is growing, but is still not the most popular football league in America. Liga MX, the top flight in Mexico, is by far the most popular league, and the peak viewership of English Premier League matches does outdo that of MLS on most at least fairly big occasions. The Bundesliga and Serie A are not at the same level of MLS, but their viewership and following is growing. It seems like MLS just talks about wanting to be one of the biggest leagues in the world without doing what is necessary to get as many eyes on them as Liga MX.

I might be off base with some of this, I will admit. I do not closely follow MLS and could probably be wrong in some of those points. But I just find it hard to comprehend a league trying to be the next big thing when a new team can charge these absurd ticket prices, thinking they will be fine chasing away the market they should be appealing to. There are many things going well in America for football at the moment. There are many things going poorly, many more than what can be discussed in this article. But this small issue of ticket prices irked me, it rubbed off as arrogant from a league and footballing system that has often been too pompous and arrogant for having achieved little outside of merely existing for 25 years and riding the coattails of the World Cup and Premier League.

I hope I am wrong. I hope there is a grander purpose for these prices and seat licenses, potentially a new stadium. I hope this is not a growing trend in the league, and the league will continue to grow its unique trend and desire to foster homegrown talent. I am not too optimistic about that, but I so do hope I am wrong.


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