Friday, June 6, 2003
Bengals sack their own fans
Peter Bronson, Cincinnati Enquirer
'Attention Bengals fans: Do not leave your seats or you may lose your behinds. Violators may be litigated.''
You won't hear that on the loudspeakers at a Bengals game. But the team is quietly sending letters to threaten disgruntled fans with legal action if they don't pay their club-seat contracts.
"It's a not-so-gentle reminder,'' said Troy Blackburn, director of business development.
The letters say: "If we have not received payment by June 13, you will forfeit the security deposit as well as any parking opportunities. We expect all club patrons to honor their commitment to the Cincinnati Bengals. After the deadline, we will strongly look at all available options to fulfill the Club Seat License Agreement with any non-paying accounts.''
'Pretty darn mild'
That doesn't mean a linebacker will knock on the door. But it does mean lawyers could call, according to Bengals attorney Stuart Dornette.
His name is at the bottom of the letter, which is signed by Jeff Berding, director of sales and public affairs.
Berding said the Bengals letter is "pretty darn mild'' compared to similar letters sent to fans by NFL teams in Miami, St. Louis, Buffalo and Denver.
Blackburn said it's a last resort. "Nobody likes to get in a tussle with their customers, but in the cold light of day, it's a no-brainer.''
It's also a lot of money. Blackburn said more than 500 club-seat holders have failed to pay this year. "It's a big number that represents a 10 percent drop in the 6,000 club-seat contracts,'' he said.
He said the average annual club-seat cost is $1,500. If 500 refuse to pay, the Bengals lose $750,000.
Most have at least two years to go on their contracts, and payments are months overdue, Blackburn said.
"We made a decision internally last year that it was such a disappointing season we would hold off and give them some time. We're not thick down here. We get the message that they want to see concrete changes.''
The letter cites a new coaching staff led by Marvin Lewis; six free agents and $100 million on new players; and a "nationally acclaimed NFL draft - with our first-round pick already signed.''
No fun and games
"We have tried to be patient,'' Blackburn said. "I don't think anyone in the world would argue that we're being onerous.''
Someone will. Someone will argue that the Bengals broke the contract by delivering a defective product: lousy teams.
But Blackburn said the team's only legal obligation is to play the games.
"It's going to get a reaction,'' he said of the letters. "But they have already received several written notices.''
"Our preference is not to get to (legal action) and for all of the people to honor their agreement once we remind them that this is not fun and games.''
That could also describe the Bengals - not fun and games.
Anywhere else, this would be just another business trying to collect from deadbeat customers. For the Bengals, after a decade of defeat it looks like a hostage situation.