The eBay listing made the two seats in Main Reserve 2, Row 1, behind home plate at Yankee Stadium sound as if they were designed for pleasure, rather than purpose.
“This row is an ADA accessible row. It is an extra roomy, wider row with lots more leg room. … Perfect for everyone, disabled or not. Great for kids.”
The pair sold for $197, plus $5.97 for shipping, which, considering the usual advanced price of $66 each, would have marked a tidy profit for the seller, an eBayer registered as “rocknrollnsports.”
The fact that they were ADA accessible — spaces designed for wheelchair users — made them even more profitable, since the Yankees sell those for $19 each as part of a settlement with disabled fans who sued them nine years ago.
Quite a score for “rocknrollnsports.” And quite despicable in the eyes of those who have worked to make sporting events more accessible since the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990.
The ADA requires stadiums and arenas to provide spaces for when they’re wheelchairs. New facilities must be built with 1 percent of their seating dedicated to those in wheelchairs, and a matching number of seats reserved for their companions.
But the same civil rights protection that guarantees fans in wheelchairs access also prevents facility operators from asking them to prove they need access. You can’t ask whether a customer is disabled. Not when they’re purchasing the tickets. Not when they’re entering the stadium or arena. Not when they’re watching the game.
That makes buying, flipping and using wheelchair seats as easy as it is profitable.
“It’s killing stadiums,” said Amy Robertson, a Denver attorney who recently negotiated a $13 million ADA settlement with Kmart. “And it’s killing people with disabilities who can’t get tickets.”
Ask attorneys who represent the disabled. Ask activists who champion their rights. Ask ticketing executives with teams and facilities. Ask the consultants who counsel them on what is best and what is lawful. Almost unanimously, they will tell you that the aspect of the ADA that occupies most of their attention today is ticket fraud — the unabashed purchase of wheelchair seats by those who don’t need them, most often for profit, but sometimes because they afford lots of room and a dandy view.
All of them bemoan the practice.
And concede they can do little to stop it.
“Able-bodied people know that ADA seats exist, and they know you have to sell them to them,” said Larry Perkins, assistant general manager of the RBC Center, home to the Carolina Hurricanes and N.C. State. “It’s hard to really keep those tickets out of the hands of those folks.”
Like many venue operators, Perkins speaks of watching able-bodied fans line up for tickets under large signs that read: Accessible Seating. Some tell stories of watching scalpers buy the seats, stroll out into the parking lot, and sell them.
“The law has the best intentions, but it does get abused,” said Erik Judson, who oversaw the development of ADA-friendly Petco Park for the Padres and now is a principal with Padres owner John Moores’ recently launched development firm, JMI Sports. “We do everything we can to mitigate that. Unfortunately, if you have an opportunity, people are going to try to seize upon that opportunity, for better or for worse.”
Most teams only sell wheelchair tickets in person and over the phone, a practice that also likely violates the ADA, since others can buy tickets on the Web. Teams hope that asking buyers a series of questions will chase off scammers. Their Web sites include harshly worded warnings promising that any person using a wheelchair spot who is not disabled will be tossed letters from the event, or at the very least relocated. They use phrases like “under penalty of perjury” and words such as “fraud.”
But what can they do to make good on those threats?
“Unfortunately, nothing,” said Kevin McGuire, a Boston-based attorney who consults on ADA issues for teams, facilities and promoters. McGuire, who writes the ADA ticket policies for his clients, likened it to the scare language that warns fans that they accept the risk of injury from a foul ball when they enter a ballpark. “But it is a shot across the bow,” he said.
Robertson said that walking buyers through a series of questions — such as the common “what accommodation do you require?” — should deter some of them, particularly since they must answer them directly, rather than with a mouse or keypad.
“Maybe people blush a little bit,” said Robertson, who settled ADA cases against the Pepsi Center and Coors Field. “But the determined fraudster is not going to care.” Even teams that sell out every game rarely sell as many as half of their allotted wheelchair spaces, say teams and consultants. Brokers know that, even after a sellout, they can get those seats.
“The fraud issue is one that we’re concerned about,” said John Wodatch, chief of the Department of Justice’s civil rights division, which enforces the ADA. “It’s a hard nut to crack.”
Many teams and concert promoters hold wheelchair spots for 24 to 72 hours after all other seats are gone. That’s a common policy meant to give disabled patrons a fair chance at the seats before they’re offered to the broader market.
“But what it’s also done is allow these StubHub schmucks to have that 72 hours to know those seats are open and grab them,” McGuire said. “They’re going to get them every time. They know you can’t ask them about a disability. They know the rules better than the people with disabilities, and they abuse it to the extreme.
“Next thing you know all these people are buying wheelchair tickets for an event in a state they don’t live in. And then they’re on eBay. And it’s LOL. Laugh out loud.”
The Yankees declined requests for interviews for this story. Many other teams also declined to discuss the matter, citing fears that shining a light on it will only attract more profiteers.
No team in sports deals with as difficult a dynamic as the Yankees on this front. Not only are their tickets in high demand, but their policies for releasing them to other buyers were set as the result of the settlement of disabled access complaints in 1999. They only release wheelchair tickets on a rigid schedule laid out in that agreement.
Beginning at 4 p.m., five days before a game, they may make available one third of the wheelchair seats that they haven’t sold. Two days before the game, they can offer one-third of what remains at that point. The day before the game, they can offer one half of what’s left. Ninety minutes before a game — or two hours on weekends or holidays — they can offer what’s still not sold in six sections. They must hold what’s left in six other sections up until first pitch. The settlement says a wave of tickets can be released beginning at 4 p.m. each day.
Brokers can watch the clock and pounce.
The settlement also attached many of those seats to the ballpark’s two lowest price points — now $12 and $19. Even the highest priced seats come at a discount of 23 percent. Plus, the Yankees are one of few teams that allows buyers to purchase accessible seating online. That means a quick, easy, impersonal transaction.
You couldn’t craft a more hospitable environment for a savvy scalper.
In May, an eBay user who bought wheelchair tickets to two Yankees games posted a plea for advice on the site’s message boards after he read on the team’s Web site that the tickets were meant only for disabled fans. He wrote that he contacted the seller, who told him that the Yankees did not enforce the policy. He said the seller refunded his money after he outed him to the Yankees.
The eBay user did not respond to e-mails requesting an interview. The seller — the aforementioned “rocknrollnsports,” who at the time had completed more than 600 eBay transactions — no longer is registered under that name.
The problem isn’t unique to the Yankees, or to baseball. Three weeks ago, an eBay seller listed wheelchair tickets for two Patriots games, against the Steelers and the Eagles. Again, the attraction was wide berth. The listing trumpeted them as “great seats for us big-boned Pats … fans.”
Informed of the sale, Patriots executives said they were unable to match the tickets with their owner, but would keep a closer eye on that section this season.
“We tell our fans that these are designed for wheelchair users and that we will be monitoring, and that’s all we can do,” said Dan Murphy, vice president of business development and external affairs for Gillette Stadium. “The people who sit in those sections generally are the ones who police it pretty well. If they don’t think you belong there, you’re going to hear about it.”
So why hasn’t the Justice Department, which enforces the ADA, taken aim on so obvious a problem? Consider it from the side of the seller. And take the scalpers out of the equation.
Kim Blackseth, an ADA consultant who is a paraplegic, has season tickets for Golden State Warriors games. His seats — a wheelchair space and companion — are courtside. Like many people who have season tickets in baseball, basketball or hockey, he goes to many games and gives away, or sells, the ones he doesn’t use.
When the Warriors made the playoffs this season, Blackseth couldn’t make all the games. So he sold them. “They were great seats,” Blackseth said, “and I got a premium for them.”
He did not sell them to a wheelchair user. Blackseth argues that limiting him in that manner would be as discriminatory as refusing to accommodate his wheelchair.
“I’m not suggesting there is no fraud,” Blackseth said. “But don’t leap to the conclusion that there’s something funny going on just because you see able-bodied people sitting in those seats.”