(The following is a reprint of a March 10 editorial from The Cincinnati Enquirer. Bengals.com thanks the newspaper for permission to use.)
Disgruntled buyers of Cincinnati Bengals seat licenses are suing Hamilton County and the team because the seats issued to them differ from a stadium diagram in the original 1996 sales brochure. Partial or full refunds could cost county taxpayers $1.5 million or more.
The company hired by the county to sell seat licenses says it was never told of design changes in the seating plan. Don Schumacher of Don Schumacher Associates said, ""If there were material changes to the stadium seating area, I can't imagine not telling the people selling the product.''
He thought the 1996 seating zones wouldn't change. But architects had only started designing the stadium when the brochure went out. The stadium design underwent many revisions, as most do, including compressing seat zones from 49 to 40.
""The design went through about 80 iterations,'' said Troy Blackburn, Bengals business development director. ""But everything was done by April 1997, and every change was fully reflected in the plans by the time (fans) were assigned to zones in May 1997.''
Bengals officials and project managers insist they informed the county of architects' changes, but Mr. Schumacher's marketing group didn't get the message, and that four-inch diagram on the 1996 brochure was out in circulation. ""The brochure had a life of its own,'' Mr. Blackburn said.
Carl Stich, an assistant county prosecutor defending against the lawsuit, admits the marketing arm didn't know what the construction arm was doing. ""I don't think anyone ever really did focus on that,'' he said.
Lawyers for six fans who sued in November asked the Common Pleas Court to grant class-action status, which would allow the case to include more than 400 fans. Seat licenses give buyers the right to buy tickets for specific seats. Sales generated more than $26 million for the stadium project. It's understandable that some fans want their money back if they were led to believe they were investing thousands of dollars for better seats than they got.
But no evidence has surfaced so far that the team or the county deliberately deceived anyone. The county should settle this dispute and give fans a fair compensation or give them their money back. If the Bengals can field a decent team, it should be easy to resell seat licenses.
In Cincinnati, 40,000 season ticket holders had to move to a new stadium. It's not surprising some would be dissatisfied. But is this cause for a class-action suit? Over seats at football games?
The bungled communications further demonstrate the costs of trying to do too many things too fast. But saddest of all is that it's taken for granted that such a dispute would end up in court. This case is as good as any to start restoring sanity.