For the first time in more than two decades, NFL season-ticket holders are being asked to pay up without knowing for certain there will be football. Payment for New England Patriots season tickets, which will be refunded with 1 percent interest if individual games or the 2011 season is unexpectedly canceled, is due at the end of the month.
How are those account holders responding?
As one would expect, responses were across the football field.
Some are renewing. Others are not. Some are reluctant to pay out the money now to help ownership during the labor battle. Others sent in payment early to support management.
Chris Silva has had Patriots season tickets since 1992, the year after he graduated from college. He has long been passionate about the Patriots. Even when he lived in Tulsa for two years, he attended every game but two, which reflects his investment in the team.
Silva, 42, is prepared to write out a check for $7,000 for his tickets this year, even though it seems a bit early to him to do so.
"From a business standpoint, my feeling is 'don't ask for me to pay for a product you don't currently have.' I don't think that's fair," he said.
Silva, who is married with three children and works in the commodities business, wasn't yet over the Patriots' playoff loss to the New York Jets when his invoice arrived in the mail. That irked him, especially when he learned that other teams have later deadlines for season-ticket holders. Silva said the Patriots could have showed "goodwill" by extending the payment date anywhere from 30 to 45 days, when there may be more clarity on the labor situation.
The Patriots, who have made March 31 the cutoff date since 2002, considered an extension. But the team says the combination of confirming ticket invoices, promoting off the waiting list, granting upgrades and printing tickets lengthens the process.
For Framingham's Fred Magnus, an extension never crossed his mind when sending in payment for two season tickets earlier this month.
"I was glad to send it in early as a show of support for management," said Magnus, who has had season tickets since 1977. "I have full confidence in ownership. I think they are honorable people."
Magnus added that he felt comfortable sending in his payment because he was confident that the NFL wouldn't have games with replacement players, as it did in 1987. That was also on the mind of Leo Crowe of Westwood, who has purchased a season ticket with a group of friends since the inaugural 1960 season.
Crowe figures the labor battle will ultimately be resolved and games will be played.
"Everybody is trying to get the biggest slice of the pie they can," he said. "I just hope that it doesn't come to the point where the league owners try to put together teams that are inadequate like they did [in 1987] to fulfill their commitment to season-ticket holders. That was an insult to fans."
Regardless of how it turns out, Crowe won't renew his seat. He has decided he will no longer purchase the season ticket, but it wasn't directly because of the labor battle.
"I weighed the issue last year and it's more of a personal thing with me," he said. "The game is a commitment, a great deal of time, and it was just too much for me. The commitment of money is a factor too."
Other season-ticket holders who asked not to be identified echoed those thoughts, specifically pointing to preseason games. One fan who pays $170 per ticket in the lower bowl of the stadium is not renewing after 18 seasons because "the product they provide in the preseason is not worthy of what they're asking people to spend, and I'm already $340 in the hole before I go to a game that matters." The availability of once hard-to-get playoff tickets on the secondary market also contributed to the decision.
"I'll still go to 2 or 3 games and playoff games, so in terms of what I do, it won't change much," the fan said. "But my commitment to all tickets is changing."
Stu Steinberg, who owns Eaglerock Financial in Newburyport, has made a commitment to season tickets since the mid-1980s, when he purchased a block of 13 seats. He now has seven season tickets and he's prepared to write out a "huge check" in the next couple of weeks.
But he also had a message that might resonate with owners across the NFL.
"I'm a fan, but if the NFL doesn't play, I have a family, kids, a job, and football will just fade into the background," he said. "It will be the biggest $10 billion mistake in the history of mankind as far as I'm concerned."
In the end, Steinberg expects games to be played in 2011, and he knows there is a deep waiting list of those waiting to purchase season tickets should they become available.
"I'm a glass-half-full guy and I think we'll enjoy a great year," he said. "And hopefully we'll play well in January and February, because that's what it will ultimately come down to."
Mike Reiss covers the Patriots for ESPNBoston.com.