The most valuable piece of real estate in the city might not be a mansion in Shadyside or a skyscraper Downtown but a seat in Heinz Field.
In the decade since the stadium opened, the personal seat licenses or PSLs fans bought for the right to purchase season tickets have soared in value, offering a far better return on investment than the slumping stock market or even the price of a barrel of oil.
Take, for instance, a fan who bought a license for a seat in an upper level of Heinz Field for $250 in 2001. It now is selling for an average of $4,306, an increase of 1,622.4 percent, based on 2011 sales at STR Marketplace, a website authorized by the Steelers to allow fans to buy and sell seat licenses.
A seat license that went for $500 in an end zone now is selling for an average of $7,486, an increase of 1,397.2 percent. And one that sold in a lower midfield section for $2,700 when the stadium opened now is going for an average of $17,131, a jump of nearly 534.5 percent.
Taken together, the 49,278 seat licenses sold by the Steelers for an average of $1,172 since Heinz Field opened now are selling for $9,802, on average, or an increase of 736.3 percent, based on the sales data.
By contrast, the price of a barrel of oil has increased by 340 percent since 2001.
"It certainly is an impressive increase in value, no doubt. That's a testament to how much the community loves the Pittsburgh Steelers," said Preston Hill, vice president of STR Marketplace, which manages seat license transactions for nine National Football League teams, three Major League Baseball teams and two NASCAR racetracks.
It's doubtful that many fans saw the seat licenses as a keen investment strategy when they plunked down anywhere from $250 to $2,700 for the right to buy season tickets before Heinz Field opened.
In fact, many fans grumbled about having to pay a one-time fee for the right to purchase tickets. Several disgruntled ticket-holders even sued, claiming the seat licenses they bought didn't match the seats they got. The lawsuit eventually was dismissed by the state Supreme Court.
The Steelers ultimately raised an estimated $40 million through the personal seat licenses and used the money toward their $123 million share of the cost of the $281 million stadium.
Ten years later, the licenses are providing an unexpected bonanza to fans, or at least those interested in selling their seats, perhaps the most coveted of possessions among the Steelers faithful.
Mr. Hill said the Steelers are in the "top tier" of teams in the country in seeing increases in the value of seat licenses. In all, 15 NFL teams, including the Dallas Cowboys, the Baltimore Ravens, the Cincinnati Bengals, the Cleveland Browns, the Chicago Bears and the New York Jets, require fans to buy seat licenses.
"The demand for the Pittsburgh Steelers franchise is higher than almost any in the country. It is phenomenally high," Mr. Hill said.
He and Marc Ganis, president of Sportscorp Ltd., a Chicago-based industry consultant, said the team's success on the field -- with two Super Bowl victories and three AFC championships since moving into Heinz Field -- is obviously a key factor in the appreciation of the seat license.
But it's not the only one.
Mr. Ganis said another thing that worked in fans' favor is that the Steelers priced their seat licenses below market rates so that longtime season ticket-holders moving over from Three Rivers Stadium could keep seats in roughly the same location.
An even bigger factor, he said, is simple economics.
"Very few people want to sell personal seat licenses. As a result, those who want to sell can charge a higher price because ... there are many who want to buy," Mr. Ganis said.
Then there's Pittsburgh's well-known and rabid interest in the team. The Steelers credit that enthusiasm for helping to drive up the value.
"The value of a seat at Heinz Field is a direct reflection of the passion that Steelers fans have for their team," said Mark Hart, the Steelers' director of planning and development.
Teams typically turn over about 2 percent of their licenses in a given year, according to Mr. Hill. The STR numbers do not include sales on sites like eBay or Craigslist or private transactions.
Of course, to profit from the increase in value, a fan must give up a seat and ticket, perhaps calling into question which master he or she will serve: money or football.
"It's like owning an NFL team. You never really profit from it until you sell it but it's nice to know you can," Mr. Ganis said.
It's a tough decision fans of some other teams don't have to make.
Mr. Ganis said in some cases, there's been little increase in value. In others, depending in part on the team's performance, the seat licenses actually have lost value. In still other cases, teams have priced the licenses so high there's not much room for growth.
The Pirates, for example, sold a limited number of seat licenses at $2,000 a pop before PNC Park opened in 2001. As the team's losses mounted, interest in the seats waned, and the team began selling season tickets for the seats to non-license holders. Some fans now deem the licenses to be worthless.
One football team that has seen the value of seat licenses grow is the Steelers' biggest rival, the Ravens.
Michael Burke, Ravens' manager of ticket sales and hospitality, said seat licenses -- more than 71,000 were sold -- have tripled in value since the team began selling out its stadium in 2004.
He attributes the jump, in part, to the team's success on the field, with one Super Bowl victory and numerous playoff appearances since 2000, and to a devoted fan base not unlike Pittsburgh's.
"I would say it's very similar. Pittsburgh and Baltimore are two of the smaller NFL markets, two blue collar towns that live for their sports," he said.
Baltimore teamed up with STR Marketplace in 2007 to give fans a secure site to buy and sell seat licenses. Mr. Burke said the team decided to go that route after becoming aware of attempts to sell bogus licenses as the value of seat licenses increased.
The Steelers have been using STR since March 2010.
However, fans who think they're sitting on a gold mine might not want to wait too long to cash in, said Neil deMause, co-author of "Field of Schemes," a book that examines the public financing of stadiums and arenas. He said the seat licenses have a definite shelf life.
As Heinz Field ages and the Steelers start to think about a new stadium or extensive renovations, the value of the licenses likely will decline, Mr. deMause said.
"If I bought a Steelers PSL, I would be very happy with the way things have worked out so far, but I wouldn't count on it as my next nest egg because there are too many uncertainties," he said.
One fan who has been on both sides of seat license transactions, as a seller and a buyer, is Steve Masters, a software consultant at Carnegie Mellon University's Software Engineering Institute and a longtime Steelers fan.
This month, Mr. Masters sold a seat license he bought for $1,200 in 2006 to a soldier stationed in Afghanistan for $6,000 after posting the seat on STR Marketplace.
As part of the transaction, he paid a 10 percent fee to STR, which shares the revenue with the Steelers, and ended up with $5,400. He originally had listed the seat in section 131 near the goal line for $8,500. He believes the price he got was "reasonable."
"I thought it was a good offer and I'm satisfied with what I got for it," he said. "I have to say that when I initially bought it, I wasn't looking at it as an investment. But when I was looking to buy [other seats] and saw the marketplace, I realized that it was worth more than I paid for it."
Last year, Mr. Masters purchased two seat licenses in section 110 on the 40 yard line for $30,000, or $15,000 each, in a private negotiation. He dipped into his savings to pay for the seats.
"It was a substantial amount of money. It was like buying real estate. I was excited about it. I was pleased because I was able to get some nice seats. My wife wasn't quite as excited about it as I was," he said.
With the transactions, Mr. Masters currently is the proud owner of five seat licenses and the accompanying season tickets, which he and family members use. Based on the sales data, he probably could make a tidy sum for himself if he sold them. But he's not looking to cash in any time soon.
"I'm not interested," he said. "First and foremost, I'm a fan."
Mark Belko: email@example.com or 412-263-1262.