NFL – DO TEAMS HAVE THE RIGHT TO RESTRICT OUT-OF-STATE TICKET SALES?

A very interesting law suit has recently been filed in Nevada Federal Court that could set an important precedent to which sports teams all over the US will greatly be affected.

The case has to do with a Nevada man (John E. Williams, III) who sued the NFL and the Seattle Seahawks, among other parties, in Federal Court after he was “excluded” from buying tickets to the January 16, 2014 NFC Title game between the Seahawks and the San Francisco 49ers.

Specifically, Williams claims he was barred from attending the game in question because he lives in the state of Nevada and not one of only 6 states allowed by the Seahawks to purchase tickets for the game (Washington, Oregon, Montana, Idaho, Alaska, Hawaii, and the Canadian provinces of British Columbia & Alberta).

As such, Williams claimed that he was a victim of “unconstitutional ‘selective sales’ of tickets to national events held in public stadiums”.

Further, Williams said the Defendants in this case “unjustly enriched” themselves by forcing residents of the 44 other banned states to buy tickets on the “secondary market” for excessive prices, and which each Defendant received a substantial portion of those profits.

The suit also says: “The practice of withholding the sale of tickets from the public at large, and allowing only credit card holders limited to certain areas is a violation of the Federal Consumer Fraud Act and/or common law”.

If he wins, Williams seeks over $40 million dollars in damages.  But, more importantly, he requests the court to enact a fairer policy for sports teams to distribute tickets. He argues, in part, that because the NFL is exempt from federal income taxes and because most stadiums are financed with public funds, all fans should be able to attend any NFL game regardless of home address.

So, where do I stand on this issue?

Well, first, I won’t dig too deep into the argument about whether or not the Seahawks engaged in unfair consumer fraud, as this is a complicated legal issue & I’m not a lawyer.  In any event, I really don’t buy the argument by Williams that the Seahawks deliberately limited ticket sales to their own fans in order to garner excessive prices from outsiders for a large profit.  If that was the case, it would have been easier for the Seahawks to simply raise the prices really high to everyone who wanted to attend the game.

A more likely scenario is that Seattle limited tickets to its Northwest fans in order to keep large numbers of 49ers fans out.

By having mostly Seahawks fans in their stadium, the team knew it would give them the best home-field advantage possible. It’s no secret that the Seahawks fans are LOUD.  In December, the fans at CenturyLink Field set a Guinness World Record for loudest outdoor sports stadium.  This is an added bonus in establishing a major home field advantage.  Seattle probably wanted to maximize this asset and help themselves to win this important game.

To me, the real issue in all of this has to do with the possible discriminatory factor of teams geographically limiting ticket sales.  Namely, is it fair?

Hell no, it’s not fair.

As an avid sports fan, I agree with Williams’ complaint in that all sporting events should be open to anyone who wants to buy tickets, regardless of whether they come from the surrounding area or Timbuktu.

And, I think Williams’ point about restricting ticket sales to stadiums built with public money is excellent.

As he mentions in his complaint, the NFL is a not-for-profit entity that relies heavily upon taxpayers dollars to build stadiums.  Yet, the NFL maintains that it is not involved in how teams sell their tickets.  On the flip side, teams are not held to any discriminatory standard or rules as to this practice.

True, teams haven’t gone so far as limiting ticket sales to people of a certain race, color, or sex.  But, what if they did? Of course, that would not go over well with the public.  Yet, how is a person’s geographical region not a similar discrimination?

In fact, I think it should be written as the 28th Amendment to the Constitution.  It could say something like: “Prohibits sports franchises from denying ticket sales to persons based on race, color, sex, or credit card address.”

But, alas.  That will never happen.

Because, whether we like it or not, what Seattle did was smart business practice.  They limited their ticket sales to their own fans to help them gain the ultimate advantage: to win.

And, so far as the Federal law or NFL rules go, there seems to be nothing in place to stop teams from currently engaging in this practice.

It’s not like the Seahawks are the first and only team to engage in the practice of limiting ticket sales to its fans, either. There are several similar incidents, like when the Denver Broncos limited ticket sales to those living in the Rocky Mountain Region for its AFC Championship game earlier this year vs. the Patriots.

In the NHL, an even bigger controversy erupted last year when the Nashville Predators famously tried to limit ticket sales of home games vs. the Chicago Blackhawks.  It seems that Blackhawks fans were attending road games in large numbers, particularly in Nashville.  To counteract this, the Predators announced that they would not sell single-game tickets to three of its home games against the Blackhawks to fans outside the geographical area, and required fans to purchase tickets to a second game as well.  The idea was that local fans would be most likely to purchase tickets to two games in the area, but not out-of-towners.

So, it’s fair to say that this issue is pervasive at least country-wide in multiple sports.

Which makes the idea of Williams prevailing in his law suit all the more exciting.  If it makes it to a Judge’s ruling and it does come out in his favor, it will set a precedent and open up ticket sales to everyone in the land, across the board in all US sports.

No longer would teams from the NFL or other sports be able to do what Seattle did and that would be just for sports fan everywhere.

Let’s cross our fingers.

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