Catonsville retiree Jim Daly considered it galling to have to shell out a combined $2,800 for six "personal seat licenses" for the right to buy Ravens season tickets before the team moved to its new stadium in 1998.
"I thought it was a total rip-off," said the devout fan, whose truck is painted Ravens purple.
But Daly shifted his position after he sold the seat licenses recently, turning his investment into $13,000 - a 464 percent profit.
Daly joined many other fans who are making money on their initial football investments. PSLs, which helped the Ravens recoup millions of dollars in relocation costs from their 1996 move from Cleveland, are now yielding windfalls for hundreds of season-ticket holders who bought in early. Many never imagined their allegiance to a National Football League team would literally pay off in profits.
"Everybody got a little bit better Christmas present last year," said Daly, 62.
PSLs are akin to an initiation fee. They are owned by fans, not the team, provided that the seats are renewed each season. Some fans - such as Pat Smart, from Cecil County - have taken to buying and selling Ravens and other teams' PSLs the way other people trade stocks.
Smart, 50, said he has invested about $100,000 in Ravens seat licenses and another $100,000 in Philadelphia Eagles PSLs. Even as business was down 50 percent last year in his Philadelphia-based roofing company due to the slumping economy, he said, he cleared about $40,000 from a side business he and his wife established with another couple a few years ago to manage their NFL investments.
"That's not bad for a part-time job," said Smart, who says he attends an NFL game almost every football-season weekend.
It didn't hurt that the Ravens went 11-5 last season and won two playoff games. Experts say the PSL market is driven largely by team performance and outlook, as well as the local economy.
"People are tired of investing in the stock market where they don't understand the companies or the businesses," said Kyle Burks, president of STR Marketplace, a Houston-based firm that contracts with the Ravens to coordinate the sales online. "My joke is people in Baltimore could more easily rattle off the starting lineup for the Ravens than the board of directors for GE."
Many fans are more casual PSL market speculators than Smart. With two club-level PSLs to sell, Alice Edwards, a school bus contractor from Forest Hill, regularly researched prices and logged onto the online marketplace looking for deals.
"I checked my home computer two or three times a day looking for seats," Edwards said.
She said she doubled her initial $5,000 investment and applied the profits toward four new seats.
"And they are much better seats," she said. "I moved up from the 15-yard line to the 45-yard line on the Ravens' sideline."
Edwards and other fans and ticket brokers have learned that the economy may be sluggish, but Ravens supporters aren't. The average PSL price sold through STR Marketplace's site, seasonticketrights.com, fell from $4,200 in 2008 to $3,400 so far this year. But that's still up about 300 percent from 1998.
The team's PSLs sold out in 2004, and fans have since been reaping dividends by selling choice positions on the seat-license waiting list. Fans pay $50 to join the list, which the team limits to 3,000 members to sustain value and allow everyone a realistic shot. People on the list also pay a $25 annual fee, with all the fees applied to any eventual PSL purchase.
People selling their wait-list positions - which allow up to six PSL purchases - have seen profits this year ranging from $125 to $2,225, according to data from STR Marketplace.
"Yes, the economy is bad, but there are a lot of Ravens fans out there, not even just in Maryland. They're all over the place," said Stephanie Crockett, a retired accounting clerk from Westminster. She said she got $6,000 last month for each of two PSLs she bought in the late 1990s for $1,500 apiece.
Fans holding PSLs the longest typically fare best. The Ravens originally sold the licenses for $250 to $3,000, depending on seat locations. The club charges $750 to $8,000 today, and they fetch higher prices when sold through STR Marketplace, eBay or other outlets.
But Scott Murphy, a partner at Hardesty Capital Management, counsels caution. "If you're going into it from a business standpoint, you're relying on a shrinking pool of potential purchasers given the economic situation," Murphy said. "I would think discretionary income is down because the economy is down. It's a big-ticket expense, and it's like real estate - location, location, location."
Eleven NFL teams currently require season ticket holders to buy PSLs, according to Burks. The number will soon increase to 14 when the Dallas Cowboys, New York Giants and New York Jets open new stadiums.