Anyone who has enjoyed March Madness knows that Lady Luck often intervenes in a team’s journey to the NCAA Final Four. But is getting to the game a literal roll of the dice for spectators too? The Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago has recently ruled that a lawsuit can go forward which claims that the NCAA’s ticket sales for the NCAA tournament are an illegal lottery akin to a game of poker or roulette.
Those who run sweepstakes and contests live in fear of having such an accusation leveled against their promotional campaigns. While they know that they must avoid combining the three elements of a lottery: (1) prize, (2) chance, and (3) consideration (such as money), those who are new to the industry can often be heard to say “it’s not like this is real gambling or anything.” Much of the time, the focus is on how to make sure that “chance” or “consideration” (or both) are not present in your promotional game. There is very rarely any debate as to whether there is a “prize,” as there is usually little point to having a promotion without one. Yet, it is that issue which is at the heart of the case against the NCAA. More to the point, the Court seems to have been influenced by the fact that Final Four tickets are highly sought after, so the chance to buy them in and of itself could be a “prize.”
For years, the NCAA has used random selection to determine who will be allowed to purchase tickets to its Final Four basketball games. According to the plaintiffs in this case, to have a shot at scoring a pair of tickets, they were required to pay the NCAA in advance for both the face value of the tickets and a “non-refundable handling” fee of $6-$10. To maximize the chance of being selected, each person could enter up to ten times, submitting the face value of ten tickets plus handling fees, although participants would only be allowed to purchase a single pair of tickets if selected, regardless of the number of entries submitted. After the random selection process, “winning” entrants would receive two tickets and a refund of the face value of the other nine entries, while those who were not selected would receive a refund of the face value of ten pairs of tickets. However, none of the applicants received a refund of the handling fees.
The plaintiffs filed a class action lawsuit alleging that the ticket distribution process is an illegal lottery. They allege that the opportunity to purchase a pair of Final Four tickets at face value is a prize, that the prize is distributed by chance, and that they paid consideration for that chance in the form of the handling fees that were not refunded. From this assessment, the plaintiffs conclude that the NCAA is engaged in illegal gambling in the sale of Final Four tickets.
The trial court initially dismissed the case based on an Indiana court of appeals case, Lesher v. Baltimore Football Club, which held that the Indianapolis Colts were not engaged in gambling when they used a similar ticketing system. In Lesher, however, the handling fees were refunded for all but the tickets that were actually purchased. The Lesher court decided that there was no “prize” involved in the Colts ticket distribution scheme because a “prize” is “something of more value than the amount invested.” Ticket purchasers “invested the price of the tickets and received in exchange either the tickets or the entire amount invested . . . those receiving tickets got nothing of greater value than those who received refunds.” With regard to the NCAA’s ticket sales, though, the Seventh Circuit faulted the trial court for relying on Lesher. According to the Seventh Circuit, the plaintiffs had adequately argued the existence of a “prize” because they asserted that the fair-market value of the NCAA Final Four tickets was much greater than the face value at which the winners had purchased them, and that the plaintiffs had “invested” the handling fees to participate in the random drawing.
While the trial court will ultimately have to decide these issues, the Seventh Circuit’s ruling certainly nudges the trial court in an interesting direction, and the result may expand the definition of what qualifies as a “prize.” This case is a reminder of the importance of structuring promotions with care to avoid the legal morass and potential liability facing the NCAA in this class action lawsuit. Marketers and broadcasters cannot merely rely on doing things the way they were done in the past to protect against lawsuits and prosecution. That approach is, quite simply, a gamble.