Indianapolis Colts fans were dealt shocking news over the weekend when star quarterback Andrew Luck unexpectedly retired.
Luck, a 29-year-old Stanford grad and the first overall pick in the 2012 NFL draft, has battled significant injuries in recent years. They include a lacerated kidney, torn abdominal muscle and multiple shoulder and ankle problems. He missed the entire 2017 season with injuries.
Despite these physical ailments, and despite a lack of protection from an often ineffectual Colts offensive line, Luck finishes his career with the 15th highest career QB rating (89.5) in NFL history. In his final season, Luck threw for 39 touchdowns and 4,593 yards while winning both the Associated Press and Pro Football Writers of America comeback player of the year awards. As the years pass, Luck will be remembered as one of the top dozen or so quarterbacks from the 2010s.
News of Luck’s retirement broke when ESPN’s Adam Schefter tweeted about it during Saturday night’s preseason game between the Colts and Chicago Bears at Lucas Oil Stadium. Colts fans surprisingly booed the four-time Pro Bowler as he walked off the field; it was unclear whether they were booing Luck or news of his retirement, or both.
Regardless, the Colts are now vulnerable to taking a step back in the AFC South after their 10-6 record in the 2018 season. Instead of one of the game’s best quarterbacks at the helm, the Colts will now be led by unproven backup Jacoby Brissett.
This turn-of-events has left some Colts fans feeling dejected and annoyed. Some have gone far as to demand their money back. To that point, The Athletic’s Zak Keefer reports that fans are calling the Colts ticket office requesting refunds.
Are the Colts legally obligated to provide refunds to disenchanted fans? Could ticket holders successfully sue the Colts if they don’t receive refunds?
The short answer to both questions is no. The longer answer is more interesting.
The fans’ perspective and related legal arguments
Taking the perspective of aggrieved Colts’ ticket holders first, they can offer four arguments that they were misled by the team—even if the team was as shocked as anyone by Luck’s retirement.
First, the Colts have urged fans to buy tickets for 2019 games in part because of Luck. He is crucial to the team’s marketing efforts. Luck’s outstanding 2018 season, when he led the Colts to the playoffs and finished second in the NFL behind Patrick Mahomes in passing touchdowns, had fans more likely to buy tickets. Data backed this up: in April, the Indianapolis Starreported that Colts season ticket renewals were way up double-digit percentages from the previous season.
Along those lines, Luck’s marketability has been recognized by the NFL’s business partners. DirecTV, which has been sued along with the NFL in an antitrust case recently examined by The MMQB, has a new ad featuring Luck.
Second, there was no forewarning that Luck would retire. While 29 years of age is hardly young for an NFL player, some of the game’s best quarterbacks—including 42-year-old Tom Brady and 40-year-old Drew Brees—are excelling well into their late 30s and early 40s. For a starting quarterback these days, 29 is an age where a player could still play at a high level for another dozen years.
Luck has rehabbed from an ankle injury during the off-season. However, he and Colts officials indicated that he would return for the 2019 season. In April, Luck discussed feeling “refreshed” and outlined ways he intended to improve as a player. In June, head coach Frank Rich told media that, “barring anything crazy,” it was a “no-brainer” that Luck would be back for the season. Ticket holders were purchasing tickets during these months. Even if Luck might miss time in 2019, it was not expected he would stop playing altogether.
Third, the timing of Luck’s retirement was nearly as surprising as the retirement itself. A player can, and many argue should, retire whenever the timing is right for him and his family—just as a team won’t hesitate to cut or trade a player whenever the timing is right for the team. Still, a fan might have figured that if Luck was going to retire before the start of the 2019 season, he would have done so months in advance so that the team could better prepare for his absence. Of course, Luck didn’t retire months ago because he felt differently months ago. He retired when he decided to retire.
Fourth, a fan could cite Indiana laws that, on the surface, seem applicable to their now-regretted purchases of Colts game tickets. For instance, Indiana’s deceptive trade practices laws generally outlaw false or misleading advertisements. The state’s Deceptive Consumer Sales Act also prohibits unconscionable sales transactions. Meanwhile, citizens could request that the office of the Indiana Attorney General launch an investigation into deceptive and predatory business practices. These and other laws could be used to claim the Colts acted illegally in promoting the sale of 2019 game tickets. The team seemed to assure consumers that Luck would be part of the team.
Fans’ ticket litigation would fail
There are at least four problems with a legal claim attempting to link a purchase of Colts tickets and Luck’s retirement.
First, this is pro sports we’re talking about. All players retire at some point, and sometimes at surprising points. No ticket holder has a right hinging on when a player decides to hang it up. This is true even when the ticket holder finds the timing inconveniencing. Luck doesn’t have to explain or justify why he is retiring. It’s his choice. Every person who buys a game ticket knows, or should know, that players retire when they want.
Second, laws prohibiting deceptive advertising and marketing normally require a showing that the defendant had knowledge that the advertising and marketing schemes were deceptive. The opposite is true here: from Colts owner Jim Irsay on down, team officials appear shocked by Luck’s decision.
Third, the idea that a team “has to” refund money spent on tickets because a player won’t be available could open “Pandora’s Box” to frivolous litigation. Every year, a small percentage of star NFL players are seriously hurt and out for the year. It’s part of the sport, just like other sports. When Tom Brady went down with a season-ending knee injury in the 2008 season opener, fans who bought tickets to Patriots games to watch Brady play didn’t suddenly gain a right to a refund. If they didn’t want to watch Matt Cassel as the Patriots quarterback that season, they could have sold or given away their tickets.
Fourth, and most importantly, a game ticket conveys a very limited legal right: the right to safely watch a game from a particular seat. A game ticket represents a revocable license for a ticket holder to enter a facility to watch the listed game. The license is “revocable” in that if the fan violates the stadium’s code of conduct, the team or stadium can revoke the license. Without a license to enter the facility, the fan would be a trespasser.
Along those lines, a ticket to an NFL game guarantees the right to watch two specific teams play. However, it doesn’t guarantee the right to watch specific players. This is what makes an NFL game ticket different from a ticket to attend a boxing match or a music concert. A ticket to watch Manny Pacquiao fight Keith Thurman provides a right to watch those two boxers. If two other boxers appeared in the ring, a ticket holder would have a viable argument that they had been swindled by a bait-and-switch. Similarly, if a fan pays for a ticket to watch Taylor Swift perform in a concert bearing her name, but a lesser-known artist performs in lieu of Swift, the fan would have a logical argument that he or she did not get what was contractually promised.
In contrast, a fan who pays for a ticket to watch a Colts-Pittsburgh Steelers game doesn’t obtain a contractual guarantee that Andrew Luck or Ben Roethlisberger will play at QB. The fan only obtains a right to safely watch the Colts play the Steelers from a particular seat in the stadium.
It’s not surprising, then, that litigation involving disgruntled ticket holders has a dismal track record. In 2007, a New York Jets ticket holder sued Patriots head coach Bill Belichick on the theory that because the Patriots had violated a league policy on the location of a camera used to film Jets coaches, the ticket holder had witnessed a fraudulent game. Under this supposed theory, the ticket holder been deprived of the value of his ticket. The lawsuit failed since the ticket holder got what he paid for: the right to watch the Jets play the Patriots.
Similarly, in 2013, a Miami Heat ticket holder sued the San Antonio Spurs after Spurs coach Gregg Popovich rested starters Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili and Danny Green. The ticket holder argued that the Spurs had engaged in bait-and-switch since the game had been marketed as a match-up between two of the best teams in the NBA (the Heat featured LeBron James, Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh at the time). Instead of watching the Spurs best players, the ticket holder was treated to their B team. This case failed since the plaintiff got what he paid for: the right to watch the Heat play the Spurs.
We live in an era when ticket holders sue over bad no-calls during NFL games, so it’s possible that Luck’s retirement could trigger litigation against the Colts. Should that happen, expect the court system to swiftly “retire” those cases.
Michael McCann is SI’s Legal Analyst. He is also an attorney and Director of the Sports and Entertainment Law Institute at the University of New Hampshire Franklin Pierce School of Law.