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Column: Marlins suing season ticket holder

Miami Marlins catcher J.T. Realmuto prepares to throw to home plate after fielding a wild pitch in the fourth inning of a baseball game against the Milwaukee Brewers, Tuesday, May 10, in Miami. Jonathan Villar was safe at home plate.
Photo by Associated Press.

Miami Marlins catcher J.T. Realmuto prepares to throw to home plate after fielding a wild pitch in the fourth inning of a baseball game against the Milwaukee Brewers, Tuesday, May 10, in Miami. Jonathan Villar was safe at home plate.

Angry sports fans may have found a lawsuit they can rally around.

The Miami Marlins are suing a season ticket holder for failing to pay for tickets he didn’t receive. The fan’s attorney filed a motion to dismiss the suit and claims “the team reneged on everything” it promised.

Until the revenue from media rights fees skyrocketed, season tickets were the lifeblood of sports teams. And Mickey Axelband was a sports team’s dream. He had been a Marlins season ticket holder since the team’s first game in 1993. In 2011 he agreed to purchase two season tickets for 2012 and 2013. Axelband paid a total of $24,300 for the first year but after the team allegedly reneged on its promise to provide him certain benefits – e.g., seats in a special lounge – he stopped attending games and refused to pay for the second year of his contract. The Marlins elected to sue.

There’s a long history of fans suing their teams. Fans complain about such things as a team’s failure to win, the relocation of seats, and of course, injuries suffered at the stadium or ballpark. Except for the occasional victory in an injury related lawsuit, rarely are plaintiffs successful.

Conversely, teams have sued their own fans. While such suits receive less publicity, they aren’t as infrequent as one might think. Almost without exception those suits result from a breach of contract – the failure to pay for season tickets, as is the case between the Marlins and Axelband.

A team suing its own fans can be problematic because teams are in the public relations business. The adverse publicity that results from the suit can be counterproductive, even if the team is successful in collecting the debt.

Many teams, including the Marlins, are beneficiaries of public assistance. The Marlins received hundreds-of-millions in subsidies from the City of Miami and Miami-Dade County to build their new ballpark. Critics claim that Marlins owner Jeffrey Loria duped elected officials into approving the funding by pleading poverty when in fact the team was profitable. County taxpayers are on the hook for $1.2 billion until the bonds that helped finance Marlins Park are paid off in 2048.

Several years ago the Marlins threatened another fan with legal action for refusing to pay for season tickets. The team had raised the height of a billboard in front of his seats, blocking his view of the field. The Marlins claimed they offered to relocate his seats but the fan said he wasn’t offered comparable seats.

Miami isn’t the first professional sports team to sue a fan. The New England Patriots have brought a number of lawsuits against fans for failing to adhere to the team’s ticket resale policies. Failure to comply with those policies usually results in forfeiture of the tickets. In 2010 the Los Angeles Dodgers filed breach of contract suits against two well-known Hollywood personalities, film maker Steve Marlton and former SNL star Jon Lovitz. Marlton allegedly owed the team $300,000 for unpaid tickets while Lovitz owed $95,000 for premium dugout seats for the 2010 season.

Dan Snyder of the Washington Redskins may be the most notorious sports owner/litigant of all time. When the recession hit in 2008 a number of fans were unable to pay their season ticket commitments. The team claimed it tried to accommodate them – by reducing the number of seats in a contract, waiving contracts for one year, or shortening contracts by terminating them early. The Redskins contemplated suing 125 season ticket holders, but ultimately only a handful were sued.

A Washington Post survey in 2009 found that several NFL teams had sued their fans, including the Chicago Bears. The Baltimore Ravens, Cincinnati Bengals, Green Bay Packers, Houston Texans, Jacksonville Jaguars, New York Giants and Jets, Seattle Seahawks and Tennessee Titans said they have not while a number of other teams wouldn’t comment on the subject. The best approach to non-payment is the policy of the NHL’s Washington Capitals. They simply cancel the tickets and resell them.

The two teams that don’t shy away from suing their fans have something in common. A 2014 survey by Rolling Stone found that Marlins owner Jeffrey Loria was rated the second worst owner in all of professional sports. Not coincidentally, Redskins owner Dan Snyder was ranked number one.

Jordan Kobritz is a former attorney, CPA, and Minor League Baseball team owner. He is a Professor and the Chair of the Sport Management Department at SUNY Cortland. Jordan maintains the blog: http://sportsbeyondthelines.com and can be reached at jordan.kobritz@cortland.edu.

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