The Seattle Seahawks sold a few thousand tickets to their NFC Championship Game on Sunday, January 19, against the San Francisco 49ers. But there was a catch: with a California billing address, you couldn’t buy them. The Seahawks limited sales primarily to people in the Pacific Northwest: Washington, Oregon, Montana, Idaho, Alaska, and Hawaii, plus British Columbia and Alberta, Canada.
It’s a rarely-used business strategy in professional sports: an attempt to limit the in-stadium fan base, and tilt the advantage to the home team.
For the San Francisco 49ers, the odds are already stacked against a win because of that visiting-team disadvantage. Patrick Rishe, a sports economist at Webster University, says the advantage has been estimated at around two to three points added to the home team's spread.
And Rishe says Seattle’s stadium, CenturyLink Field, may amplify that advantage further.
“The architectural design of their stadium is such that it keeps and traps the noise in,” Rishe said. The stadium is narrow and high, with deep recesses under the upper deck, and a 40-row bleachers section called the “Hawks Nest,” with aluminum seating to further reflect and amplify the sound of cheering and foot-stomping.
In fact, the Seahawks so-called “12th man”—that’s a team’s crowd of fans in the stands—is so loud, they set a Guinness World Record on Dec. 2, in a game against the New Orleans Saints with 137.6 decibels of noise. Seismic experts from the University of Washington have installed ultra-sensitive monitors near the stadium and detected tiny earthquakes from fan cheering.
“Part of the reason for the ticket block to anyone outside of the Pacific Northwest is that they want to make sure they have as many loud partisans there as they can get,” Kevin Reichard, publisher of Ballpark Digest in Wisconsin, said. “Among their fan base it’s great publicity. It pats all the fans on the back and says ‘We only want you here, we don’t want anyone else here.’”
Of course, Seahawks management can’t really keep Californians out. Only a few thousand tickets—out of 67,000 (the stadium's capacity) were sold this week online. And 49ers fans have access to the secondary market, where they can purchase tickets at marked-up prices.
Lawyer Kenneth Shropshire at Duane Morris LLP, who teaches sports business at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, says that the strategy of geographically restricting ticket sales isn’t common, but it can be a sound business strategy. And it’s not likely to run afoul of the law.
“Preferences are given to season-ticket holders, for example,” Shropshire said. “So the idea of giving a preference to a group because in some way it benefits the business, that is, the team [is acceptable] —as long as that group isn’t some sort of protected class. We would see an action if they said, ‘We’re not going to sell any tickets to any Asian people, or black people, or women. But this is different. This is, 'We want our fans to have the opportunity to be there, and we’ll give them first preference. And if you want to come and you’re from elsewhere, you can buy a ticket on the secondary market.'”
Kevin Reichard points out that the Denver Broncos have restricted ticket sales to favor locals as well. And so did Northwestern University recently for a basketball game against rival University of Illinois.