Personal Seat Licenses Driving Away Most Loyal Fans

Personal Seat Licenses may be driving away the most loyal customers of college and pro athletic teams.

Thomas Luck's lawsuit is a perfect illustration of the type of injury that college and professional sports teams inflict on themselves with stunning regularity these days. One wonders if there will come a time when fans desert major sports over issues relating to personal seat licenses, or PSLs.

Most major colleges and universities, in an effort to increase revenues, now require individuals to make a tax-deductible donation to a scholarship fund just for the privilege of buying season tickets. At the University of Tennessee, individuals must donate to the Volunteer Athletics & Scholarship Fund. Since the seat and other benefits, such as parking, are determined by the giving level, the more an individual gives, the better his or her seat. Without looking at the contract language, it is impossible to determine exactly what rights William Luck had in the transfer of his lifetime box-seat buying rights to his son. But the clear result of the dispute is that fans such as Luck who have been following the university's football team for decades are now out of luck. Their choices are to donate an additional $6,000 just for the privilege of paying face value for the tickets, forego their tickets, or sue the university. It is hard to see this as a win for the University of Tennessee.

The problem is by no means unique to college athletics, but at least some professional teams give fans a chance to recoup their additional "donation" should they decide to give up their seats. For example, in an effort to help offset $1.6 billion in construction costs for the new 82,500-seat Meadowlands stadium, the New York Giants are asking season-ticket holders to pay up to $20,000 for a personal seat license. Unlike the college system, however, once a PSL is purchased, the individual has the right to buy season tickets for a certain seat in a stadium. In addition, the individual holder of the PSL can sell the seat license to someone else if he or she no longer wishes to purchase season tickets and retain all profits from the sale.

Time will tell whether Luck's suit will succeed and give hope to other fans - and whether driving away their most loyal customers is worth whatever monies colleges and pro teams get from PSL transactions.

Case Summary

Call it the lawsuit of a lifetime. William Luck, who as president of the West Tennessee Big Orange Club helped raise money to build the upper west deck at the University of Tennessee's Neyland Stadium, was given lifetime buying rights to a pair of box seats in the front row of the deck near the 50-yard line. That was 1961, though, and times have changed. Thomas Luck, who in 2002 inherited the rights to the seats after his father died, sued the university last year to retain them. Luck, who is representing himself, filed the lawsuit after receiving a letter from university officials saying that, because of renovations, they were relocating his seats to what athletic department spokesperson Tiffany Carpenter described as "comparable seats on the other side of the stadium." Luck would also be required to donate an additional $6,000 to the university and pay face value for the tickets. During a recent hearing, Luck told the court, "I feel like I'm suing family here."

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