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Is that San Francisco 49er fans’ lawsuit just? Or is it just obnoxious?

We all remember the NFC championship game back in January this year. The game was one of the most intense, exciting and nail-biting games of the season. Our Seahawks managed to beat the San Francisco 49ers, get a Super Bowl berth and then brought home the ultimate football victory! Everyone was happy. Well, not everyone. Obviously most 49er fans were disappointed that their team didn’t get the trophy, but one 49er, Nevada resident John E. Williams, III, was especially upset. He was so angry that he couldn’t get a ticket to the playoff game here in Seattle that he decided to sue the NFL and the Seahawks in Nevada federal court for $50 million.

As hosts of the playoff game, the Seahawks limited the number of credit card sales of tickets to accounts with billing addresses in nearby venues outside of Washington. Although the list included parts of Canada and Hawaii, it did not include Nevada or California. As a resident of Nevada, Mr. Williams was shut out. According to his theory, the  selective sale of tickets was economic discrimination, and the practice was tantamount to fixing the playoff game and bolstering the Seahawks’ already substantial home field advantage. Mr. Williams is hoping to get $10 million in punitive damages and $40 million in actual damages through his lawsuit. The basis for Mr. Williams’ argument is that the NFL should not be allowed to selectively sell tickets since the NFL gets public assistance to build stadiums and does not pay income tax, in light of its non-profit status. Mr. Williams further argues that all games in the NFL, regardless of location, should be sold on a first-come-first-serve basis. Although his argument may sound plausible in theory, Mr. Williams ignores several key factors of the ticket sales practice.

First and foremost, it should be noted that restrictive ticket sales are not limited to just the Seahawks. The NFL has stated that there is no league policy on the issue and that the NFL has determined that the practice gives rise to no legal issues. Other NFL football teams have limited ticket sales by geography in the past. For example, the Denver Broncos limited sales to the AFC Championship game this year without much complaint from fans.

Additionally, limiting ticket sales serves the very real and important purpose of limiting  mass purchasing by individuals who will distribute them for profit in the secondary market. By restricting the sales to certain geographic billing addresses, ticket sales are more likely to be made to fans who will actually attend the game, as opposed to buyers who simply want to turn around and sell the tickets for a nice profit. 

In reality, Mr. Williams’ claim that he would have had the opportunity to purchase Seahawk/49er playoff tickets immediately when sales opened if there had not been  geographic limitations  is illusory, making his claim of damages worthless. Statistically speaking, his chances of actually getting tickets that way would have been extremely slim, especially once season ticket holders’ purchase priority is factored into the equation. Anyone who has ever attempted to buy tickets to a popular event like the NFC Championship knows the futility and stress of refreshing the Ticketmaster web page in the hopes of getting through with no success of ever actually being able to do so. Thus, Mr. Williams likely would have had to purchase his tickets through the secondary market even if the geographic limitation of ticket sales was not established.

Lastly, it is important to remember that this practice of limiting the sales of playoff tickets geographically is an incentive for the football teams themselves. By working hard and winning enough games to have the playoff game in Seattle, the Seahawks earned and deserved the right to home field advantage and all the benefits associated with it, including the right to have their fans filling the stadium and cheering them on. Mr. Williams might not like it, but the Seahawks earned and deserved the right to restrict ticket sales and stack the proverbial deck with Hawk fans. Jim Harbaugh, the 49ers coach, even stated that he understood and did not have a problem with the Seahawks’ plan to restrict ticket sales geographically. If San Francisco Coach Harbaugh is ok with it, who is Williams to argue?

So the question remains, should the NFL have a policy regarding the availability of tickets for billing addresses in the opposing team’s city and/ or immediate geographic location? Possibly. But even if that was the policy, in Mr. Williams’ case, he would have been out of luck, regardless, since he lives in Nevada.

The bigger question is whether Mr. Williams’ lawsuit should go forward? Does he really have a case? And if so, is it worth a whopping $50 million? It is common for punitive damages to be set high (in jurisdictions where they are allowed which do not include Washington), in order to set precedence and to deter similar action from taking place in the future. But $40 million in real damages? That seems excessive. Thankfully, court rules exist to determine this very thing. Generally, procedural rules typically provide the court with options to dismiss suits, or even sanction parties (by imposing litigation costs and attorneys’ fees) who submit pleadings for improper purposes or contain frivolous arguments that have no evidentiary support. Mr. Williams’ case filed in federal court in Nevada may just be a candidate for such sanctions by the court there.

The irony here is, had the 49ers won enough games and managed to secure home field advantage in San Francisco, they most likely would have done the same thing the Seahawks did and restricted ticket sales to its fan base, especially considering the uniqueness of the support the Seahawks’ enjoy in their No. 12 Fan. But if that had happened, Nevada most likely still wouldn’t have made the list. Who would Mr. Williams be suing then, his beloved 49ers? Awkward to say the least!

If you are interested in learning more about the suit, check out the following links:

http://www.cbssports.com/nfl/eye-on-football

http://www.ninersnation.com/2014/4/27/5657338/football-fan-lawsuit-seahawks-nfl-nfc-championship-game-tickets

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