Thousands of Fans Lost Their Seats at Super Bowl XLV. Was the NFL to Blame?
Did the NFL intentionally cheat fans out of their prime pigskin perches?
Noma Bar for Reader's Digest
Most of the 103,219 fans who attended Super Bowl XLV were thrilled to be sitting in Cowboys Stadium in Dallas as the Green Bay Packers battled the Pittsburgh Steelers on February 6, 2011. But by the end of the day, more than a few ticket holders were super bummed.
At kickoff time, hundreds of temporary seats that were supposed to have been installed for the big game hadn’t been inspected for safety yet or, in some cases, hadn’t been placed at all. About 850 people had to be relocated to seats different from the ones indicated on their tickets. With all that seat shifting, another 2,000 fans couldn’t get to their places before the game began. And, worst of all, 400 ticket holders had nowhere to sit. They were forced to stand and watch the game on monitors in a stadium club.
The following day, both the Cowboys and the NFL expressed regret over the seating “error,” as Cowboys owner Jerry Jones described it.
[pullquote] Worst of all, 400 ticket holders had nowhere to sit. They were forced to stand and watch the game on monitors in a stadium club. [/pullquote]
“It was obviously a failure on our behalf, and we have to take responsibility for that,” added NFL commissioner Roger Goodell. Within a week, the NFL had offered compensation. For those without a seat, the NFL offered three options: a ticket to the next Super Bowl plus $2,400 in cash (three times the face value of a ticket); a ticket to any Super Bowl in the future, plus airfare and hotel; or full reimbursement of their documented travel expenses or $5,000, whichever was higher. For those who were relocated from or delayed getting to their assigned seat, the NFL offered a refund of the ticket’s face value or a future Super Bowl ticket. NFL spokesperson Brian McCarthy told the Dallas Morning News, “The overwhelming majority of the claims were resolved.”
Still, a group of fans, including some who ended up with obstructed views, filed a class-action lawsuit alleging breach of contract, fraud, and deceptive sales practice and sought more than $100 million in damages. In the complaint, attorney Michael Avenatti argued that the Cowboys and the NFL “engaged in a failed and reckless attempt to maximize revenue and attendance at Super Bowl XLV and, in the process, betrayed the trust of many of its most loyal fans.”
In July 2012, District Judge Barbara Lynn dismissed all claims against the NFL except two: a breach-of-contract claim filed by seven plaintiffs and the fraud claim by two of those plaintiffs who had obstructed views. They went to trial in March 2015.
Did the NFL defraud and breach its contract with Super Bowl ticket holders?
On the breach-of-contract claims, the jury said yes. The seven plaintiffs—three people who ended up without seats, two whose seats were moved, and two stuck with obstructed views—won $76,000 in damages in total (collectively, they had sought about $505,000 in actual and punitive damages). On the fraud claims, however, the jury ruled in favor of the NFL, finding that the league hadn’t intended to defraud any of the ticket holders. The plaintiffs appealed, but on September 9, 2016—nearly six years and six Super Bowls later—the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit upheld the district court’s rulings. Despite the failed appeal, “the plaintiffs are satisfied,” says Avenatti, their attorney. “They went up against the Goliath that was the NFL and prevailed.”