Super Bowl lawsuit: Which of the NFL's "Seatgate" offers does it make the most sense to accept?

The stadium scene.
Feb. 11 2011 1:49 PM

Gameday Theory

Fans who lost their seats at this year's Super Bowl have three compensation opportunities. Which one should they accept?

Jerry Jones.
Jerry Jones

On Sunday, 1,260 Super Bowl ticket holders got screwed. The unlucky group lost their seats when Arlington, Texas, fire officials declared that a section of temporary bleachers was unsafe for posteriors. While the NFL moved 860 or so of the displaced fans to the nosebleeds, around 400 were forced to watch the game from the standing-room only section or on monitors inside and outside Cowboys Stadium. These people were not happy.

As news of the displacements came out, the NFL worked furiously to turn those frowns upside down. The league offered the 400 displaced fans $2,400 (three times the face value of a ticket) and a seat at next year's game, which they could use themselves or sell on the secondary market. (The 860 who were moved to the stadium's upper reaches were offered nothing at the time.) On Tuesday, the NFL added a second option: Disgruntled fans could accept a nontransferable ticket to any future Super Bowl, plus accommodations and airfare, but not including the $2,400. Fans can wait until after each year's conference championships to make a decision about which option they want, allowing them the possibility to see their preferred team in an upcoming Super Bowl. By Wednesday, a third option had been reported in the press: Fans could join a class-action lawsuit, filed in a Dallas district court, against the NFL, the Dallas Cowboys, and Cowboys owner Jerry Jones. (Late on Wednesday, a second lawsuit was filed on behalf of two Packers fans.)

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On Thursday, the NFL issued its strongest mea culpa yet, acknowledging that it had also wronged the 860 displaced nosebleed fans, in addition to 1,140 previously unidentified fans who had been seated in their rightful places, but were delayed in entering the game because of the construction snafu. All of these fans were offered their choice of a face-value ticket refund or a ticket to any upcoming Super Bowl.

So what should these three categories of fans—completely screwed over, rightfully aggrieved, and slightly inconvenienced—do? Is it best to join one of the lawsuits or take one of the NFL's offers?

The first lawsuit alleges that the NFL's offerings are not sufficient to cover the losses of those who paid for airfare and accommodations and bought pricy tickets on the secondary market. That claim seems legitimate. Rooms at a Super 8 Motel near the stadium on Super Bowl Sunday were going for $700. Round-trip tickets from Milwaukee to Dallas were selling for $845, while roundtrips from Pittsburgh to Dallas went for $821. Michael Avenatti, the attorney representing the aggrieved fans, also pointed me to a press release from Ticketmaster issued on the Wednesday before the game. The release reported that the cheapest seats on NFL Exchange, "the official ticket resale marketplace of the NFL," were being sold for $2,907, while the average ticket resale cost was $4,118.87.

We can conservatively estimate, then, that a displaced Steelers fan paid at minimum—one-night hotel stay, cheapest ticket—around $4,000 not to see his team lose on Sunday. That's $800 more than the cost of an $800 ticket to next year's game plus $2,400 in compensation. "When the NFL made the offer of $2,400, they knew it wouldn't compensate most of these ticketholders, from its own data," Avenatti says. In the case of the second option, we don't yet know what type of tickets, what type of airfare, and what type of accommodations the NFL is offering, so it's impossible to game out the value. (I left a message with the office of NFL public relations representative Greg Aiello, but it was not returned.) Finally, the suit alleges that the stadium officials knew that the seats might not be ready in time but decided not to inform fans until they got to the stadium, a claim that is supported by this news account and one that is crucial in tort law.                     

So, the smart money is in joining the lawsuit and rebuffing all of the NFL's offers, right?

Not so fast.

"The best money is on the NFL's deal probably," says SCOTUSblog's Tom Goldstein, who has argued and won a class-action case before the Supreme Court. "The NFL is already offering them more than they're going to get in a court case." The NFL is compensating these individuals the cost of the ticket, Goldstein says, and going the extra mile in offering them one to any Super Bowl of their choosing. The only way to win a class-action suit, Goldstein believes, is to prove that the NFL knew about the seating problems beforehand and that the league could have contacted ticketholders before they arrived at the stadium, a case that seems very hard to make.

Regardless, Goldstein believes the case won't go to trial and will ultimately result in a settlement for not much more than what the NFL is already offering. A fast settlement appears to be the plaintiffs' best hope. Late Thursday night, Avenatti's office e-mailed me a press statement reiterating his clients' legal case and responding to the NFL's latest offer: "I invite the NFL and Jerry Jones to contact me as soon as possible so that we may quickly resolve this dispute on terms fair to the fans." Goldstein also predicts the league, in an effort to avoid any further PR damage, will offer whatever settlement results from the class action to anyone who accepts one of the initial deals.

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