Two weeks from today, millions of Americans will be glued to their television sets to watch the annual sports ritual known as the Super Bowl.
Although the two teams that will be playing in Super Bowl XXV won't be decided until next week, thousands of fans have already made hotel arrangements and booked their flights to Tampa, Fla., site of this year's game.
However, in many cases, fans have overpaid for their hotel rooms, having bought them through brokers who block-purchased rooms, then resold them to travel agents or individuals at much higher prices.
Even worse, many fans may discover \o7 after\f7 they land in Florida that they, too, will only be watching the game on television.
The reason: These fans have unwittingly purchased a Super Bowl package from a tour operator or wholesaler that included air fare, hotel, even meals . . . but no tickets to the game.
Or they have purchased a package that actually does include tickets to the game, plus hotel or condominium accommodations . . . but no air fare to Tampa.
A recent newspaper ad for a Super Bowl package read: "Super Bowl, airfare to Tampa, four nights Sheraton Hotel, $3,000."
The ad implies that for $3,000 you also get tickets to the game. You don't.
Another, from ABC Tickets in Wilmington, Del., offers "Super Bowl Tickets and Packages." For $1,445 per person, you get a three-day package that includes a one-bedroom condo in nearby St. Petersburg, continental breakfasts, a rental car and two tickets to the game. But no air fare is included.
"It's a continuing problem," says Hoyt Decker, assistant director of the U.S. Department of Transportation's Office of Intergovernmental and Consumer Affairs. "Consumers need to read brochure and advertising language very carefully. If a game ticket is not specifically mentioned in the advertising material or listed as a tour feature, it probably is not included."
And, says Barbara Casey, coordinator of the city of Tampa's Super Bowl Task Force, "considering the number of seats in the stadium, how they are distributed and the number of fans who want to go, there's an excellent chance that you won't get a ticket with these packages or a seat on an airplane."
In 1984, the last time the Super Bowl was played in Tampa, Casey remembers the people "who had a great first-class plane ride here, had great hotel rooms and even a great pregame meal . . . and no tickets. They watched the game from a hotel. Many of these tour operators sell the package before they know whether they'll get tickets."
According to the U.S. Department of Transportation's consumer protection rules, a tour operator marketing a Super Bowl package that includes game tickets must have the tickets in hand--or a written contract for them--before it advertises.
So what are the chances that tour operators currently advertising tickets actually have them in hand? Not great. Why? There simply aren't many tickets available.
According to Casey, each Super Bowl team gets 12,000 tickets. The host team, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, receives 7,400 tickets. The other 25 NFL teams get 800 tickets each. Tampa Stadium seats 74,296, thus leaving only 22,896 available for the general public.
But not really. Other tickets are distributed to television networks, advertisers and various corporate sponsors. That leaves only a small percentage of tickets, which are then put into a lottery for those fans around the country holding NFL season tickets. Thus, no Super Bowl tickets are made available to the general public.
This year, each game ticket has a face value of $150, but could be sold for as high as $2,000 by some scalpers.
"You have to \o7 know\f7 someone to get a ticket or a room at one of the close-in hotels," Casey says flatly. "And no tour operator can guarantee it will be able to obtain tickets." "We scan as many of the ticket ads as we can," says the DOT's Decker, whose staff includes just three investigators. "For example," he reports, "for the 1988 Super Bowl between the Redskins and Denver in San Diego, we looked at eight charter flights that included tour packages. But only two actually included tickets to the game."
Then there's the problem of hotel-room price gouging.
For example, the 1990 Super Bowl, held at the New Orleans Superdome, was a definite seller's market. Denver Broncos and San Francisco 49ers fans arriving in New Orleans were confronted by hotel room rates as high as $750 per room.
Officially, the hotels were not charging these rates. Wholesalers who had reserved dozens of rooms in advance were essentially reselling the rooms at three to four times the original quoted rate.
This year, the city of Tampa has established a hotel Rate Mediation Committee made up of local hotel managers.
"To a degree you can monitor this," says Casey, "but not totally. Generally, we have found that hotels here are not overcharging for rooms."