Why Philadelphia fans are suing Flyers over Winter Classic ticket policy

Richard Abt was a Philadelphia Flyers season-ticket holder during the 2011-12 season, paying $16,730.00 for four tickets over 44 home dates — 41 in the regular season and three preseason games.

In early September 2011, he received a ticket book from the team containing his seats for the season, save for one: The Flyers' home game against the New York Rangers on Jan. 2, 2012. In its place was a mock ticket for the NHL Winter Classic, with the following note:

"The Flyers will host the 2012 Bridgestone Winter Classic! You will notice that only 43 games are included in your ticket and parking books. Winter Classic Tickets are not part of your 2011-12 season ticket package."

The Flyers required that season-ticket holders purchase both the Winter Classic alumni game and an AHL outdoor game involving the Adirondack Phantoms along with tickets to the main event — with a processing fee on top of all of it.

Abt's regular-season seats cost $95 each. Each "seat" for the Winter Classic ended up costing $394.

He felt this violated his season-ticket agreement with the Flyers at the start of the season; that the team sold him a ticket, pulled the ticket back and then "resold" it to him at a dramatic markup.

So he decided to sue Comcast Spectacor in December 2011, in County of Montgomery small claims court, claiming their Winter Classic premium pricing violated their season-ticket agreement with fans.

Richard Abt won his case, receiving $1,364.00 from Comcast in the ruling.

The dozens of Flyers fans joining a class-action lawsuit over the Winter Classic ticket policy are hoping they have the same success.

"You can't just take them away at that point. You all agreed on the purchase price at the beginning of the season. You can't just take one back, decide it's now more valuable, and then sell it back to the season-ticket holder," said Evan Barenbaum, the lead lawyer for Stern and Eisenberg on the class-action suit.

The main argument in the suit: That Comcast "concealed, omitted and failed to disclose" in its initial contract with Full Season Ticket Package purchasers in 2011-12 that it intended to, or had any right to, exclude the Winter Classic ticket from the 44 home dates the fans paid for. It later informed the season-ticket holders that the Winter Classic ticket would be available "in excess of that [cost] already set by the Agreement," as it was bundled with other events at the ballpark.

From the press release regarding the class-action suit, which was filed on behalf of a Flyers fan in Hamilton Square, N.J.:

The complaint alleges that Comcast Spectacor misled the Flyers season ticket holders by excluding the 2012 "Winter Classic" regular season game against the New York Rangers from the season ticket package only after season ticket holders had prepaid for each of the 44 preseason and regular season games for the Flyers' 2011-2012 season. Comcast Spectacor then offered to resell the Winter Classic ticket right back to the season ticket holders only if they also paid for tickets to two unrelated exhibition and "minor league" hockey games, whether they wanted them or not, plus excessive and unearned "processing" charges for all three tickets.

Among purchasers of tickets to the Winter Classic, only Flyers full season ticket holders were subject to Comcast Spectacor's conditions that they buy tickets to the exhibition and minor league games. The class action lawsuit was filed because full season ticket holders were entitled to the Winter Classic ticket as part of their agreement with Comcast Spectacor, and should not have been required to repurchase the ticket or to pay for any additional tickets or charges. The Complaint includes claims for breach of contract and violations of New Jersey's Consumer Fraud Act.

It also claims Comcast Spectacor was in violation of the Pennsylvania Resale Amusement Ticket Law Act, which permits resale of a ticket but that the premium charged by the reseller can't exceed 25 percent of the established price.

Comcast never filed an appeal when Abt won his case. Now, it says it will "vigorously defend" against this suit from the fans. Via the Philadelphia Daily News:

"We have been made aware of this frivolous claim, and we are confident that we acted appropriately in all respects," Comcast Spectacor spokesman Ike Richman said in a statement. "Following the [NHL's] selection, all season ticket holders were given an appropriate refund and were given the additional opportunity to purchase a Winter Classic ticket package. It's a shame that a disgruntled few have seized upon the class-action lawsuit to attempt to profit from what was overwhelmingly considered by those who attended the Winter Classic, and the other games, to be an extraordinary experience."

The "appropriate refund" from Comcast for taking the Winter Classic ticket from their season-ticket package was the price of one regular-season home game.

In Abt's case, that was $95.

"They gave you 1/44th of your money back, and they said if you wanted to go to the game, you can buy a seat to the Winter Classic. You also had to buy tickets to two events that had nothing to do with the Winter Classic game, and charged processing charges on top of all of it," Barenbaum said.

The move also eliminated the option for a fan to resell the Winter Classic ticket on the secondary market for a major profit, as fans in other Winter Classic cities had done in previous years. Instead, the Flyers "resold" a ticket to their season-ticket holders at an incredible markup, according to the argument.

"It's the greed factor," said Flyers fan Nick Graff, who joined the class-action suit. "I think if the Flyers did not charge those extra 'processing fees' and gave us fans more freedom to purchase what we wanted, and not buy all three games or nothing at all, I might not be involved in this suit with my wife. "

From a legal standpoint, most contracts get upheld. The language of the Flyers' ticket agreement with fans will be key; does it include some language like "use of these tickets may be made contingent on subsequent conditions announced by the licensor"? Are the conditions inherently unreasonable? Did the Flyers have a right to do what they did with the one home date; and does the fact that these fans in the class-action suit waited so long to file have any baring on judgment?

That said, the Abt case likely contained these arguments, and the fan won the decision.

While this might all seem isolated to the Flyers, it could also have ramifications for other teams' ticket policies — not only what's disclosed about events like the Winter Classic when season-ticket holders re-up, but also about the potential for short-term variable pricing.

Barenbaum likens Comcast's move here to pulling a ticket from season-ticker holders and asking them to repurchase it at a premium for some historic game: Like, for example, the completion of a winning streak, a record-breaking game or even a game that could determine a playoff spot.

In any case, the Flyers' move here has angered some long-time fans. And now they're taking action.

"The Flyers organization only saw one thing involved in this event: lots of dollar signs and really did not care for their season-ticket holders' concerns," said Graff.