Warriors reveal long-term Chase Center season-ticket plan

Courtesy of the San Francisco Chronicle:

The Golden State Warriors want a long-term relationship with their season-ticket holders. Thirty years, to be exact.

The team revealed the season-ticket sales structure it will use at Chase Center arena in Mission Bay, scheduled to open in 2019. The plan includes some innovative wrinkles.

The team is calling it a “membership” program, and it will require season-ticket buyers to pay a one-time fee that will enable them to buy their seats for 30 years. In a unique twist yet to be used in any pro sport, the Warriors promise to pay back that fee after 30 years.

Golden State’s ticket plan represents the latest evolution of a business trend that has deep roots here in the Bay Area, where Al Davis and the Raiders were pioneers in selling “personal seat licenses,” and where both the Giants and the 49ers used similar strategies to help finance their new stadiums. The twist the Warriors are stressing is that, unlike PSLs, which required a one-time cost allowing a customer to buy season tickets every year, this plan involves a refund at the end.

So, does that make the Warriors’ plan some kind of reverse ticket mortgage? Not exactly, but it’s somewhere in that financial neighborhood. The way I see it, the membership fee is more like an interest-free, long-term loan from you to the team. You’ll get your money back, but you won’t get any consideration for inflation, or currency fluctuation.

Here’s how it would work:

If you want to own Warriors season tickets, you would pay a one-time fee for the right to purchase your seats every year for the next 30 years. You can do that in one lump sum, or finance the payments. That’s a big commitment, but the team says memberships will be transferable and can be sold, but only through a marketplace run by the team.

But what if the market for the tickets tanks? Here’s the team’s explanation: Let’s say you pay $10,000 for your membership fee. Then five years from now, you sell that membership for $8,000. At the end of your 30-year term, the Warriors will give you the other $2,000 to square things up. (Seems to me that you should be made whole when you sell the membership, but that’s not how it’s set up.)

It’s a big ask. But the Warriors argue they’re paying more than $1 billion for the new arena, and this is one piece of the team’s financing puzzle. They also just re-signed most of their championship roster, and are facing a payroll of approximately $160 million next season. The bills are stacking up.

While they haven’t set prices yet, Warriors President Rick Welts told The Chronicle that half of the expected 11,000 to 12,000 season-ticket memberships would be priced under $15,000. The other half could sell at a much higher cost.

A model of a traditional suite is seen at the Chase Center on Tuesday, March 14, 2017 in San Francisco, Calif.

The team plans to sell two-thirds of the 18,000 seats in the new arena as season tickets. The rest will be sold to the public, game by game. Pricing for season tickets and single-game tickets have not been established. If all the season-ticket holders want to follow the team to San Francisco, the Warriors told The Chronicle they may need to increase the number of memberships sold. The team hasn’t finalized the plan for that scenario yet.

Welts was pretty transparent in discussing Golden State’s need to raise major revenue. But he didn’t like comparisons to standard PSLs used in other sports.

“This is completely unique, and you cannot call it a PSL program,” said Welts. “What’s unique about it, for people who buy a Chase Center membership … you’re guaranteed that what you pay is fully refundable at the end of 30 years.

“You’re guaranteed to get 100 percent back. In terms of safety and certainty about what you’re putting your money toward … that’s the most unique aspect and where the innovation is. There’s never been a team or stadium that’s offered that.”

But why 30 years? A lot of us aren’t going to be around in 30 years.

“Right or wrong, that’s about the life cycle of an arena,” said Welts. “It’s the average span.”

Not everyone I spoke to is bullish on the idea. Roger Noll, professor emeritus of economics at Stanford University, was skeptical but understood the Warriors’ motivations.

“It’s an interest-free loan to the team,” said Noll. “They can take your $15,000 and invest it in the stock market. Thirty years ago, the stock market was at 700. Now it’s at 21,000. What a deal. Where do I sign up?”

The Chase Center, located in the Mission Bay district of San Francisco, will be the future home of the Golden State Warriors.

“This is a form of a ticket-price increase to be there the first few years of the new arena,” Noll continued. “This is an attempt to capitalize on the huge excess demand for the Warriors now, and spread it over a long period of time. It’s a good business strategy.”

So, there you have it. Warriors season-ticket holders will have to decide whether they want in on this deal. But, as Noll points out, the team couldn’t be in a better position to make a sales pitch. Golden State is the best basketball team in the world. Its popularity is at an all-time high. And people are lining up to buy season tickets.

The Warriors have 14,500 season-ticket holders at Oracle Arena, which holds 19,596 people. The annual renewal rate is at 97 percent, according to the team, and the waiting list has 42,000 names.

That’s called leverage.

“You couldn’t write a more perfect script to move to a new building than the Warriors have written, and continue to write,” said longtime Bay Area sports business expert Andy Dolich. “They’re champions, and this is prime selling season.”

The 30-year commitment gives Dolich some pause, but not enough to call it a bad deal.

“I would question the 30 years. It’s nice to ask for it. But lots of things will happen in those years,” said Dolich, a former 49ers executive and current lecturer at Stanford. “But it sounds like there is financial flexibility for the buyer, so maybe it’s OK.

Preparations for Super Bowl 50 at Levi’s Stadium on Tues. January 26, 2016.

“I trust the Realtor. I trust the neighborhood.”

The 49ers provide an interesting comparison to the Warriors’ situation. Just four seasons ago, the team was on top of the NFL, coming up five yards shy of a Super Bowl championship and seemingly poised for the future with a dynamic coach and quarterback. They moved into a new stadium in Santa Clara in 2014, and the team fell apart. A Chronicle report last year showed that many seat license buyers — some of whom paid upwards of $80,000 — are selling the licenses at a loss — if they can sell them at all.

“Would you have predicted Jim Harbaugh would be at Michigan? Would you have predicted Colin Kaepernick would be a career philanthropist?” Dolich said. “When you think you know exactly what you’re talking about, you don’t.”

The lesson: Things can and will change in the world of pro sports.

The Warriors hope their refund offer mitigates the risk factor for those considering memberships, even though it will take 30 years to collect. The team is also offering a few other incentives:

•Season-ticket holders will have first crack at tickets for other events at Chase Center.

•The team will guarantee the price of the tickets for the last year at Oracle and the first five years at Chase Center.

The Chase Center’s 18,000 seat arena will also host entertainment events. It’s expected to be completed in 2019.

•You can finance the membership cost, spreading it out over the years.

But if you’re thinking of speculating, the Warriors won’t let you. The team will control all transfers, or sales of memberships, on their own marketplace. The team wants to know who’s buying the season tickets.

“You can’t sell (the membership) for more than you paid for it,” said Brandon Schneider, the team’s senior vice president of business development. “We don’t want people going out and trying to make money on this. All transfers would have to go through us.”

All right, enough of the business lesson. It’s complicated stuff. And the Warriors can explain this all better than I can, so give the team a call if you’re interested.

I’m more interested in finding out how higher prices will impact the atmosphere at Chase. As we’ve all learned at Levi’s, higher prices attract a more corporate crowd. That, Santa Clara’s hot weather and the lousy team have made the 49ers’ new home a big bummer.

Will Chase be as loud as Oracle? Dolich thinks so.

“If you look at the strongest and emotionally connected markets in the country, I’d put it up there with New York, Chicago and L.A. in a second,” he said.

Welts is also confident, but that’s his job: “We think the majority of our season-ticket holders are coming with us.”

Bottom line? Wait and see. Having to pay a membership fee is a net loss for consumers, even with the promise of an eventual refund. Currently you pay for season tickets, and that’s that. And, once again, the 30-year deal amounts to an interest-free, long-term loan to the team. On the other hand, the Warriors are financing their own building, and this is the cost being passed on to those who are willing to pay.

The market will pass judgment on the Warriors’ innovative idea. People will buy in — or they won’t. But, best of all, it won’t cost taxpayers.

Al Saracevic is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: asaracevic@sfchronicle.com, Twitter: @AlSaracevic

FAQ about Warriors season tickets

How does it work? To buy season tickets, you’ll have to pay a “membership” fee. The team guarantees to pay that back after 30 years.

Can you sell the membership? You can sell your membership at any time. If you get less than what you paid initially, the team will make up the difference 30 years after your initial purchase.

What else do I get? As a member, you’ll have first crack at tickets for other events at Chase Center, such as concerts.

Do I have to pay the whole thing right away? You can finance the membership fee.

When does it open? Chase Center, located in San Francisco’s Mission Bay neighborhood, is scheduled to open in 2019