Tuesday, January 23, 2001

Bengals withheld seats from sale

Team sought to hide that it kept 3,000 seats from public

By Dan Klepal
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Cincinnati First Fans may have come second to businesses, luxury box holders and advertisers as the team assigned seats at Paul Brown Stadium.

        The sales campaign known as Cincinnati First Fans was an effort by the Bengals and Hamilton County to sell licenses to fans for the right to buy season tickets. The licenses, which ranged in price from $150 to $1,500 depending on the section of the stadium, were supposed to give fans first priority when individual seats were assigned by the Bengals.

        But the team held back nearly 3,000 seats so corporations buying luxury boxes also could buy large blocks of seats, according to documents obtained by The Cincinnati Enquirer. The seats were also held so there would be seats for visiting fans, players' wives and team officials.

        Troy Blackburn, the Bengals' director of business development, said Monday the team did nothing wrong and that the number of seats was small compared to other stadiums.

        Holding back the seats meant some fans who paid for the right to sit in specific sections of the stadium were moved into less desirable sections, claimed Janet Abaray, a lawyer representing

        fans in a lawsuit against the Bengals.

        A class-action lawsuit was filed in September alleging that fans were assigned seats in sections of the stadium different from what they paid for. Ohio's First District Court of Appeals will decide soon whether the suit can proceed to trial.

        “They sold licenses and told fans they would have first priority when getting seats in the new stadium,” Ms. Abaray said. “Then after the seat licenses were sold, advertisers were offered premium seats.

        “Where did they come from?”

        An August 1996 memo written by Jeff Berding, the club's director of sales and public affairs, to Bengals' top officials outlines the hold-back plan.

        Mr. Berding said in the memo that holding back seats had risk.

        “Not only could we be accused of giving away best seats to big businesses before Joe Fan has the opportunity to buy, but also (be) blamed for reneging on our first preference commitment to season ticket holders,” the memo states.

        “If we (do) so, we should try to keep this ... out of the media.”

        Mr. Blackburn acknowledged that some fans were not assigned a seat in the section that matched their seat license and said that's because the stadium's final design differed from early sales materials. “The number of seats we held were very few and we tried to hold them in areas that would not displace season ticket holders,” Mr. Blackburn said. “Cincinnati is too small a town to pull the wool over anyone's eyes.”

        Hamilton County Commissioner Todd Portune thinks that's exactly what happened.

        Mr. Portune, who has been critical of the county's support of the Bengals in the lawsuit, said the 1996 memo shows the Bengals were planning the hold-back program all along.

        “Not only were they thinking about it, but they took steps to withhold it from the public,” Mr. Portune said. “It's outrageous.

        Mr. Berding said that if additional seats had not been offered to luxury box holders, the new stadium might never have been built.

        “We had to have a successful suite sales campaign, or there would be no stadium,” Mr. Berding said.


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