All dressed up with nowhere to sit at the Super Bowl

Seating controversy just one part of rough Super Bowl week


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National Football League Commissioner Roger Goodell spent most of his post-Super Bowl news conference Monday explaining why incomplete construction on several sections of temporary seats at Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, Texas, kept more than 1,000 ticket holders from using their seats.

The NFL and the Dallas Cowboys had 49 days between the Cowboys' last home game Dec. 19 and Super Bowl XLV, where the Green Bay Packers defeated the Steelers, 31-25, to prepare the stadium, yet could not complete the temporary seats in time.

"We put on the event," Mr. Goodell said. "This is the responsibility of the NFL."

Super Bowl week in North Texas began with snow and ice storms that, in conjunction with a taxi driver strike, paralyzed the city's transportation and canceled hundreds of airline flights. Snow and ice fell from the stadium roof, injuring seven people, and the threat of more falling debris closed gates and created massive security lines. Then came the incomplete seating sections and fans' reports of the NFL and stadium crew's inability to handle the situation.

The NFL realized last week that the lack of guard rails on stairways leading to temporary seats could threaten the availability of those seats for the game, executive vice president Eric Grubman said Monday. The Arlington Fire Department declared some temporary seats unsafe before the game, forcing 1,250 fans, many of them Steelers and Packers season ticket holders, to find new places to watch. Some were led to bars below field level to watch on TV and handed letters, unsigned and without letterhead, explaining the situation. Others were given different seats in the stadium, sometimes worse than those they purchased.

Andrew Vasey, an Indianapolis resident who has family in Pittsburgh and holds Steelers season tickets, paid $8,800 on StubHub for two tickets in section 425. When he got to his seats, ushers told him they were unavailable and directed him and other fans to a freight elevator full of racks of food. They were eventually sent to the Miller Lite Club, a bar below field level with no live view of the game.

"I likened it to the scene in "Animal House" where the fraternity guys were taking the pledges, the rejects they didn't want, to that one little room away from the party," he said.

He missed most of the first half, he said, and watched the second half from a standing-room-only platform on the upper level near the spotlights at the top of the stadium. Mr. Vasey works in airport design and management and said he often deals with certificates of occupancy and fire marshal regulations.

"There shouldn't have been fire marshal decisions being made on the day of the event," he said. "That shows you that it wasn't done on time."

Mr. Grubman said the league knew the unfinished seating areas could be a problem in the middle of last week, but said, "We did not feel until game day that we had an issue where there was a distinct possibility that we wouldn't be able to accommodate fans."

Mr. Goodell said Monday that the league did not notify fans sooner because it did not know which sections, or how many fans, would be affected.

"The final work was completed in the afternoon of game day," Mr. Grubman said. The league did not further explain the reason for the uncertainty.

The NFL will provide the 400 affected fans with a refund of three times the face value of the tickets, or $2,400 for the $800 tickets, said NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy, as well as tickets to next season's Super Bowl in Indianapolis. The league also brought the ticket holders down to the field after the game and gave them free food and merchandise. The 2,000 fans in sections 426 to 429, who were delayed but could use their seats, will receive a refund, and the 850 fans in the 200 level whose seats were unusable were moved to "similar or better seats," Mr. McCarthy said.

The Steelers issued a statement late Monday saying the organization regretted the seating problems at the Super Bowl and directed Steelers season ticket holders to hold on to their ticket stubs and to contact the Steelers ticket office with their seat information. The statement said the Steelers will assist fans with further action through the NFL office.

Allan J. Block, chairman of Block Communications Inc., which owns the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, said he and his guests, Norah Lawlor and Jeffrey Bradford from New York, were among those who entered the stadium and made their way to their seats only to be told they would not be able to sit there.

They first were taken to a lounge where they could watch the game on television but could not see the field.

"For $900 tickets, we would have been watching the game on TV as we could have anywhere," Mr. Block said.

When Ms. Lawlor protested, an usher took them to a handicapped seating area and placed folding chairs there.

"To see the monitor you had to look straight up and you could only see what was happening in the end zone," Mr. Block said.

But what was particularly unsettling, he said, was that they spent the game worrying that someone would arrive to tell them they were not allowed to be sitting there, or that they would be kept from returning to the seats if they left for concessions or the restrooms.

"We were humiliated and kept insecure for the entire time. We were not allowed to know we were authorized to be there," he said.

"The NFL pretends they took care of people, but they didn't," Mr. Block said.

Brad Powell and his brother Dan, residents of Upper St. Clair, were told even earlier, when they scanned their tickets at the gate, that there was a problem with their seats. No one told them their seats were unavailable -- instead, their tickets were eventually re-validated and they made their way to their seats.

"They told us that the seats were unsafe and we couldn't sit there," he said.

The Powells, Steelers season ticket holders who paid the face value of $800 for their tickets, ended up in the Miller Lite Club as well. Like other affected fans, each got a free bag with a hat, T-shirt and program in it, and they were allowed to walk on the field as the Packers celebrated after the game.

"Salt in the wounds of Steelers fans," Brad Powell said.

Matthew Rush, a Steelers fan and Pittsburgh native who lives in Philadelphia, had his ticket re-validated only to arrive later at the Miller Lite Club, where officials split Steelers and Packers fans into separate areas. While waiting, he phoned a friend and told him to reserve the web domain suesuperbowl.com, and he has received about a dozen responses from people who faced similar situations. He said another fan created a similar site, superbowlsuit.com, on his iPhone while waiting outside the stadium.

"I thought, 'What can I do?'" said Mr. Rush, who is a project manager for an e-commerce company.

The guard rails on the temporary stairs leading to the seats in sections 425 and 430, the ends of the upper level in the west end zone, were not completed, and Arlington fire chief Don Crowson said he deemed the seats unusable.

"I informed the NFL and the Cowboys organization and, quite frankly, there was no push back," Mr. Crowson said in a telephone interview Monday. "They're just as interested in fan safety as I am."

Mr. Crowson said the failure to complete the stairways in time was a contractor issue but deferred further questions to the NFL or the Dallas Cowboys. The NFL declined to comment on the contractor specifically.

"Incomplete installation of temporary seats in a limited number of sections made the seats unusable," Mr. McCarthy said. "We are conducting a full review.

"We anticipated that the installation of all seats would be done in time for the game. Cowboys Stadium was designed to accommodate the number of people in the approved plan. Our failure is that we were unable to complete the full installation plan in time."

Richard Marmion, a North Hills resident, was told his 200-level seats were not available and given seats in the 400 level. He said a co-worker in his party video-taped the exchange, and security personnel threatened him with arrest if he did not stop recording.

"They literally told us, 'We're going to arrest you for this,'" Mr. Marmion said. "I will never go to another Super Bowl. Ever again."

Fifteen thousand temporary seats were installed in the $1.2 billion stadium, Mr. McCarthy said, as part of the North Texas Super Bowl Committee's bid to host the game. Cowboys owner Jerry Jones said last week he thought the game would break the Super Bowl attendance record, set at Super Bowl XIV in 1980 in the Rose Bowl, although Mr. Grubman said Monday the attendance record was not the goal.

The affected fans, aside from their anger at the lack of communication and solutions from the league, said they want the league to reimburse them for their travel expenses as well as what they paid for the tickets, which in many cases was more than face value. Mr. Vasey said his lawyers will send the NFL and the Cowboys a letter in an attempt to be reimbursed for the $8,800 he paid for his tickets, rather than the $4,800 he will now receive. If the league or team do not agree, he said, he will file suit for breach of contract.

"This is not a community play house where I'm going to see my 6-year-old and they didn't put enough chairs out," Mr. Vasey said. "This is an event that should have been planned."

Mr. Rush said he is not sure what will come of his web site or whether legal action will result, but wanted to create a central point for affected fans to interact. His father's law firm has season tickets and he attended the past two Super Bowls the Steelers played in, but others weren't as lucky.

"One person literally said, 'Instead of going to Hawaii for our 10th anniversary, we decided to go to the Super Bowl,' " Mr. Rush said. "These are, for a lot of people, once in a lifetime events."


Bill Brink: bbrink@post-gazette.com . First Published February 8, 2011 5:00 AM


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