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Lightning’s ticket limits stir serious debate, as well as howls

TAMPA — A lawsuit involving Tampa’s football team has helped give its hockey team the authority to tell some fans what they can wear to a game at Amalie Arena.

The lawsuit, filed by a fan who cried “unconstitutional” over security pat downs at Tampa Bay Buccaneers games, made it to a federal appeals court in 2007 and helped clarify the meaning of a ticket.

“A ticket is a license,” said William Sutton, director of the Sport and Entertainment Management program at the University of South Florida.

And it can be revoked if you don’t abide by the terms.

It’s this approach that emboldens teams like the Tampa Bay Lightning to impose certain restrictions on its ticket sales, prohibiting fans from wearing an opponent’s jerseys or caps in some sections when home games are played at Amalie Arena and limiting direct sales — from a source such as Ticketmaster — to buyers with Florida zip codes only.

The practice has drawn howls since the start of the Stanley Cup playoffs, first among fans of vanquished teams from Detroit, Montreal and New York, and now from fans of the Chicago Blackhawks as the team comes to town for the cup finals.

The practical impact of the restrictions is minimal.

Most Blackhawk fans are likely to buy from the secondary market, anyway, where there are no zip code restrictions, and the team clothing ban affects people sitting in only 1,400 of the more expensive seats at the 19,000 seat Amalie arena.

What’s more, Lightning management is less strident about the rule than the NFL Buccaneers are about the pat downs. It’s team spirit, after all, not security, that’s at stake in Amalie Arena.

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No Blackhawks fans will be barred from the arena or kicked out — just transferred to other reserved seating if they don’t agree to hide their Blackhawks gear in the arena’s Lexus Lounge and Chase Club.

The goal is to create a hometown environment, said Bill Wickett, executive vice president of communications with the Lightning.

“As the season ticket base continues to grow, the less likely we’ll be to implement policies like this in the future,” Wickett said.

The restrictions aren’t in place during the regular season. Wickett said he couldn’t speculate on whether they would be imposed if the Lightning make the playoffs next season.

In the Buccaneers case, the lawsuit arose from the introduction of more intensive security checks at Raymond James Stadium. A local high school teacher claimed that the pat-down policy amounted to an unreasonable search and thus violated the U.S. Constitution.

The federal appeals court ruled that the fan forfeited his constitutional right when he agreed to buy the ticket and must abide by policies the Buccaneers established. The court also said the Buccaneers can revoke game tickets for any reason.

Legal or not, is it a good idea to restrict ticket sales and team garb, as the Lightning have done? Experts disagree — including, understandably, one from Tampa and one from Chicago.

“It’s a very innovative policy,” said Jay Jisha, chairman of the Sport Management Department at The University of Tampa. “It’s an interesting strategy to get us talking about supporting the hometown team.”

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With so many sports fans having moved here from up north, and bringing their loyalties with them, Tampa has long had trouble building home crowds, Jisha said. He thinks the Lightning policy sends a message to hometown fans.

Scott Andresen of Chicago, who teaches in the Northwestern University Sports Administration Department at Northwestern University, agreed a ticket is a revocable license that the Lightning can treat as they wish.

But he considers the team’s restrictions a horrible decision.

“It makes them look weak,” Andresen said. “It’s a bush league move.”

The Lightning have taken a public relations hit that costs them more than whatever benefit they aim to achieve, he said. The Tampa area has many transplanted Chicagoans and if they “want tickets bad enough, they’ll get it.”

Norbert Bengyel, a 21-year old university student and a Lightning season ticket holder, agrees that the policies are counterproductive.

Bengyel traveled to New York to see the Lightning defeat the Rangers in Game 7 of their playoff series and endured jeers from Rangers fans over the apparel policy. Even if it only applies to a few seats, he said, it’s been a “PR disaster in that regard.”

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Wickett of the Lightning said the policy was established at the request of season-ticket holders in the sections involved, but Bengyel, who watches games from the Lexus Lounge, said he never heard fans there complain.

Restrictions designed to build a hometown crowd also have been used in National Hockey League playoffs by the Nashville Predators, and by the NFL’s Seattle Seahawks and the Denver Broncos — two teams known for strong hometown support.

Sutton with USF said restricting tickets by zip code is often done for two reasons: to block ticket brokers from outside an area from reselling tickets and to restrict the marketing area to create a home field advantage. The Lightning policy improves the chance hometown fans get first crack at a ticket, Sutton said.

He noted that the NBA’s Golden State Warriors are using the “ticket as license” argument to defend their policy of limiting any resales by season ticket holders to the team’s own website and to partner Ticketmaster.

The Warriors are in a legal battle with resale giant StubHub.

Using this tactic to create home field advantage, though, is “only as effective as the demand,” Sutton said.

With the Lightning now, he said, the policy is working: “Everybody wants to go.”

Emerson Brito is a Tribune intern and a student at Ryerson College in Toronto.

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