To what lengths can a pro sports franchise go in order to have as many fans of the home team as possible in the stands for games?
In the NFL, that suddenly has become the million-dollar question. Or, more appropriately, the $50 million question.
A 49ers fan is suing the NFL for that amount, claiming a restrictive Seahawks ticket policy before the January playoff game in Seattle between the two teams was discriminatory.
Only fans who had credit card addresses in specific Seahawks-friendly states and Canadian provinces, including Washington and the surrounding area, were allowed to buy tickets.
The lawsuit alleges that such a practice violates the Federal Consumer Fraud Act. John E. Williams III, a longtime 49ers fan who couldn’t buy tickets and filed the lawsuit in U.S. District Court, told the Associated Press: “They’re always boasting up there about their 12th player and everything else. But by allowing the NFL to decide who can or cannot attend the games, you make it an unfair game. Seattle fixed it.”
While most would agree that $50 million is a pretty ridiculous sum to ask for as damages for not being able to attend a football game, the suit does open up some interesting questions.
Something as simple as a season ticket is only sought out by someone who wants to watch the home team over a full season, but at least it is available to a fan of a specific road team who wants to pay up just to guarantee access to one game.
The same principle applies to the Vikings’ single-game pricing model in 2013. Single-game tickets were available for all games except the Green Bay game. Fans purchasing those tickets also had to buy tickets to the game against Cleveland — helping the Vikings move ticket inventory for a lesser game while also perhaps discouraging Packers fans from buying the tickets.
And should the general availability of all tickets on the secondary market — sometimes at a hefty markup but regardless available — render the point moot. After all, nobody was saying Williams couldn’t go to the game. Seahawks officials presumably weren’t checking IDs or jerseys at the door and turning away fans who rooted for the 49ers.
Seattle won the game 23-17, and went on to win the Super Bowl. How much extra home-field advantage did the Seahawks gain from the ticket policy, and was it really unfair? We’ll see how far the court goes in tackling the gray area of those questions.