The 1985 Chicago Bears were one of the greatest teams in NFL history — in fact, ESPN ranked them the greatest ever. Quarterback Vince McMahon, Hall-of-Fame running back Walter Payton, defensive tackle WIlliam “Refrigerator” Perry, and the rest of the team captured America’s heart as they sent nine players to the Pro Bowl and shuffled their way to victory in Super Bowl XX.
Hard to believe that was just 29 short years ago. Today’s “Monsters of the Midway” are 3-5 after going into hibernation against the New England Patriots this week. They’ve lost to the Bills, the Packers, the Panthers, and the Dolphins. They’re even losing to the Cook County Revenue Department! And that contest illustrates the sort of hair-splitting that seems to define so much of tax law.
In 2003, the Chicago Park District renovated the team’s home at Soldier Field. The new venue includes 8,000 “club seats” on the Lake Michigan side of the field that come with all sorts of extra goodies like access to the heated “Club Lounge,” parking, and gameday programs. There are also 133 luxury suites that rent for up to $300,000 per year and include private seating, private bathrooms, food and drinks, and even individual temperature controls. (If you’ve ever shivered through a December game at “the Eyesore on the Lake Shore,” you’ll realize that heat may be the most valuable perk of all!)
Cook County, where the stadium sits, levies an amusement tax equal to “three percent of the admission fee or other charges paid for the privilege to enter, to witness or to view such amusement.” (We’re not sure how “amusing” it is to watch Da Bears fall to the lowly Carolina Panthers, but that’s a topic for a different day.) However, that tax specifically excludes “any separately stated charges for nonamusement services or sales of tangible personal property.”
And that’s where it starts getting tricky. How much of the premium ticket price should be subject to that tax and how much should be exempt?
The team broke out a separate “club privilege fee” from the price of the club seats and argued that it shouldn’t be taxable because it’s separate from the right to enter the stadium and watch the game. As for the luxury suites however, they did not break out a separate fee for the extras, but assigned those seats a flat $104 value and paid the tax on that amount. In 2007, the county threw a penalty flag, holding that it’s impossible to separate the extra perks from the price of a seat, and sacked the team for $4.1 million in extra taxes.
Naturally, the Bears challenged the ruling on the field. They took it to an administrative law judge, who sided with the county.
If this had been an on-field call, the Bears would have been allowed just one challenge — and they would have been charged with a timeout too, for losing it! But that’s not how it works with taxes. So the team appealed to the replay judges at the Cook County Circuit Court, and won. But now the county had possession. They advanced the ball to the First District Appellate Court, which re-affirmed the tax. (Don’t rule out a Hail Mary to the Illinois Supreme Court. And you thought football games have gotten too long!)
Coach Mike Ditka would never have led his ’85 Bears to the field without a game plan to minimize his opponents’ strengths and take advantage of their weaknesses. It works the same way with your taxes. So call us when you’re ready for your own plan. But do it fast! December 31 is closer than you think, and the clock is about to run out on some of the most valuable strategies!