The seats are empty due to rain before the start of the Chicago Football Classic at Soldier Field Saturday, Sept. 3, 2011, in Chicago. | John J. Kim~Sun-Times
Updated: September 9, 2014 6:22AM
A state appellate court on Wednesday sacked a ticket-pricing practice used by the Chicago Bears that enabled the football team to duck paying a portion of Cook County’s amusement tax.
In a written opinion, the four-member court said the Bears’ argument for using the practice “does not conform” with “reality.” And the justices upheld a lower-court ruling that put the team on the hook for $4.1 million in back taxes.
The Bears already made that tax payment, as well as another, in 2012, paying the county a total of $9.4 million in owed taxes dating back to 2000, according to county officials. But the team also indicated they were making the payments “under protest,” a designation that suggests they had hoped to recover the money in court.
The years-long court dispute focused on how the Bears charged for premium seats in luxury boxes and in the “club” section of Soldier Field from 2002 to 2007. In those seating areas, the Bears set a base price of $100 or less per seat — which they paid the 3 percent amusement tax on.
But as any Bears fan can tell you, the advertised price of premium seating is usually higher — much, much higher. That’s because before the tickets went to market, the Bears tacked on hundreds in “privilege fees” — additional revenue the team claimed was exempt from the amusement tax. For example, the base price of a “club” seat was set at $79. But the advertised price ranged between $235 and $340.
Similarly, the Bears estimated the base value of a seat in an executive suite was $104, which they paid taxes on. But the actual amount a fan could expect to shell out was about $750, according to the ruling.
In court, the Bears argued fans who plunked down cash on fancy seats were paying a premium for extra add-ons, including access to a buffet and an exclusive lounge, autograph signings, and media guides. The price charged for those perks should be exempt from the amusement tax, team lawyers argued.
But the court shot down this line of reasoning. “To suggest that all of these aspects of premium seats are [tax exempt] does not conform to the reality that these amenities are the precise reason why Bears fans are willing to pay enhanced prices to obtain these tickets,” Judge Mary Anne Mason wrote in the majority opinion.
In an email, Bears’ spokesman Scott Hagel declined to comment.
Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle praised the ruling and vowed to keep tabs on the Bears and other sports teams to make sure taxes are properly paid.