Home Field Advantage: Legality of Ticket Bans to Opposing Fans
The Florida Panthers are playing the Toronto Maple Leafs in the second round of the 2023 National Hockey League (NHL) playoffs. Before Game 1 started in Toronto, tickets for the series went on sale on May 1.
The Panthers will host Games 3 and 4 of the series at FLA Live Arena. The Panthers are restricting sales to Games 3 and 4 on Ticketmaster “to residents of the United States” and any orders “by residents outside of the United States will be canceled without notice and refunds given”. Even though the Florida Panthers have not expressly unveiled their philosophy, it is obvious to some, that the Panthers would like to minimize the sheer number of the Canadian-based fans of the Maple Leafs out of the arena in order to maintain a home-ice advantage. Maple Leafs' fans will have the opportunity to purchase Game 3 and Game 4 tickets on the secondary market which amounts to limited availability hence far more expensive.
The question arises whether the Florida Panthers can legally manipulate ticket sales in this fashion. This is not the first time a home sports team has tried to limit opposing fans from purchasing tickets “in an effort to try and ensure that more home team fans can procure tickets…and that fans of the opposing team cannot.” In 2006, for the Divisional Playoff game, the San Diego Chargers “limited ticket sales to southern California” against the New England Patriots. In 2012, the Washington Nationals “limited advance ticket sales for games against the Phillies to Nationals’ season ticket holders and fans who resided in Washington, DC, Virginia, and Maryland.
In analyzing the legal issues associated with limiting tickets to opposing fans, a precedent for prior ticket manipulation does exist. This short article will focus on the arguments proposed in John E. Williams, III v. National Football League et al decided by the United States District Court Western District of Washington at Seattle.
Williams v. National Football League
In 2014, the Seattle Seahawks limited the sale of tickets in the 2014 NFC Championship game against the San Francisco 49ers in Seattle “to those individuals with credit card addresses from the states of Washington, Oregon, Montana, Idaho, Alaska, and Hawaii, or the Canadian provinces of British Columbia and Alberta”.
The Plaintiff, John E. Williams, a San Francisco 49ers fan and a Nevada resident was unable to purchase tickets to the 2014 NFC Championship because of his billing address which was in one of the “banned” states. He alleged that “the geographic restriction on ticket sales injured him because he was ‘excluded from the purchase of tickets’ in the primary market”.
Economic Discrimination and Violation of Public Accommodation Laws
The plaintiff requested declaratory judgment based on claims of “economic discrimination” and violation of public accommodation laws as it pertains to the “alleged economic harm done to ‘the Economy in Seattle as well as the State of Washington State.”
The court held that “Plaintiff lacks standing to complain about economic harm done to the city of Seattle or Washington state”. In addition, the court held that the Plaintiff’s public accommodation argument “does not extend to discrimination on the basis of state residence.”
The plaintiff argues that the Defendant violated the Washington Consumer Protection Act (WCPA), “which prohibits unfair or deceptive practices in trade or commerce.” The plaintiff contested “that the geographic sales restriction ‘makes it an unfair game to the Forty-Niners since the crowd gets so loud when the Forty-Niner Quarterback makes his call, it makes it an unfair game’”.
The court held that “any equity whose source is the volume of the…crowd does not state a legal claim under the WCPA”.
Plaintiff argued that Defendant violated the Sherman Act and the Clayton Act.
Under the Sherman Act, “claims depend on a plaintiff establishing market power in a relevant market.” The court found that “the plaintiff’s allegations did not relate to competition between firms in a market, but rather between two football teams” as “the geographic restriction on ticket sales related to an exercise of a natural monopoly on the sales of tickets in a single stadium.”
The Clayton Act “applies solely to commodities.” The court held that tickets are not under the purview of the Clayton Act because they “are not tangible goods, but revocable licenses.”
The case of Williams v. NFL “virtually assures that professional sports teams will continue to exercise the practice of ticket sales bans in the future” as the court dismissed all of Plaintiff’s claims. Due to the decision in this case and the universal custom of ticket bans, the Florida Panthers can legally prohibit the sale of tickets to Games 3 and 4 to the Canadian-based Toronto Maple Leafs fans.
Alexander is a graduate of Trinity College and earned his JD, cum laude, and MBA from Quinnipiac University. In law school, he was the Editor-in-Chief of the Quinnipiac Health Law Journal.
Sources:  Cohen, Andrew, Panthers to Protect House by Blocking Maple Leafs Fans From Tickets (May 1, 2023) https://frontofficesports.com/florida-panthers-geo-restrict-tickets-ticketmaster-against-toronto-maple-leafs/  Reese, James T., Dodds, Mark A., Let’s here it for the home team: Williams V. National Football League upholds geographic ticket sales ban (2015) https://www.thefreelibrary.com/Let%27s+here+it+for+the+home+team%3A+Williams+V.+National+Football+League...-a0419928807  Id.  Id.  Id.  Williams v. Nat'l Football League, CASE NO. C14-1089 MJP (W.D. Wash. Oct. 31, 2014)  Id.  Id.  Id.  Id.  Id.  Reese, James T., Dodds, Mark A., Lets here it for the home team: Williams V. National Football League upholds geographic ticket sales ban (2015) https://www.thefreelibrary.com/Let%27s+here+it+for+the+home+team%3A+Williams+V.+National+Football+League...-a0419928807  Id.  Williams v. Nat'l Football League, CASE NO. C14-1089 MJP (W.D. Wash. Oct. 31, 2014)  Id.  Reese, James T., Dodds, Mark A., Lets here it for the home team: Williams V. National Football League upholds geographic ticket sales ban (2015) https://www.thefreelibrary.com/Let%27s+here+it+for+the+home+team%3A+Williams+V.+National+Football+League...-a0419928807