The next big flip: Ballpark seats?

A Chicago entrepreneur has an idea for funding new sports stadiums: selling seats to fans. Fortune's Tim Arango reports.

By Tim Arango, Fortune writer

(Fortune Magazine) -- Less than four years after winning the World Series, baseball's Florida Marlins are looking at a shaky future. The lease on their stadium expires in 2010, and rumors are rampant that the team might have to leave South Florida.

The problem: Taxpayers are reluctant to foot part of the bill for a new ballpark.

Chicago entrepreneur has a plan to let sports fans own their seats at the stadium like a piece of real estate.

Teams all over the country face this dilemma, but Chicago entrepreneur Lou Weisbach has a solution: sell seats to fans on a multiyear or permanent basis, just as if they were real estate.

Here's how it works: Fans contract with teams to own their seats for a set period - from five years to ten years to perpetuity - at a fixed price, paying in a lump sum annually. The teams, in turn, get a reliable source of cash flow to pay down debt or fund new stadium projects.

The concept, called equity seat rights, has gotten buzz in the industry (fans may have recently spotted in-stadium ads at New York Mets and Colorado Rockies games) and on Wall Street.

In June, Morgan Stanley Principal Investments, the bank's venture arm, bought a majority stake in Weisbach's company, Stadium Capital Financing. Under the arrangement, teams would get an upfront check from proceeds raised by Morgan Stanley (Charts, Fortune 500) from financial institutions that would be backed by the contracts.

Fans could then pay up to trick out their seats just as they would invest in improving a home, with leather cushioning and seat-side instant-replay screens. Stadium Capital will also help establish secondary markets for fans to sell their seats at market prices. So if the team does well and demand for seats rises, fans can cash in.

"What I saw was the difficulty for teams to finance new stadiums," says Weisbach, who founded a highflying B-to-B sales-promotion firm called Ha-Lo Industries, which crashed in 2001.

It could be a tough sell to teams, which are reluctant to cede control of ticket sales. "It's great if you're looking for new revenue streams that you could bond against," says one Major League Baseball team executive. "But losing control of a large chunk of ticket inventory is what would be scary for me."

No team has signed on yet, but Weisbach says he's close to announcing a deal. If he's successful, it could give sports fans a way to support their team's future and own the rights to a piece of the stadium themselves at the same time - giving new meaning to the term home game. Top of page