Court: Reds exempt from tax on promotional bobbleheads

Legal Analysis

Quoting the Cincinnati Reds’ long-time play-by-play announcer, the Ohio Supreme Court declared Tuesday that “this one belongs to the Reds.”

The state’s high court ruled 5-2 that the Major League Baseball franchise is exempt from paying tax on the purchase of bobbleheads and other promotional items the team offers to ticket buyers.

The opinion written by Justice Patrick Fischer warned that the ruling was specific to the case and might not apply for other sports organizations. But the Department of Taxation’s chief legal counsel, Matt Chafin, said the decision essentially shows professional teams how to avoid the “use tax” on promotional items.

Reds spokesman Rob Butcher said the club is “happy with the outcome,” but is still reviewing the opinion.

The department argued the bobbleheads should be taxed because they’re bought by the Reds as giveaways, not sold with tickets. The Reds argued they’re exempt because they resell the items as part of the ticket package and Ohio law exempts companies from paying tax on items they buy for resale.

Fischer, a Cincinnati resident, led off the opinion with a long summary of Ohio’s role in baseball history beginning in 1869, when the Cincinnati Red Stockings became the first all-professional team. There are references to Hall of Famers from Ohio including players Cy Young, Mike Schmidt and Barry Larkin, to the 1975-76 “Big Red Machine” champions, and firsts such as Larry Doby of the Cleveland Indians becoming the first black American League player and to the first night game being played in Cincinnati.

Then, in explaining the ruling, Fischer wrote that unlike a foul ball or a T-shirt shot into the stands (the Reds use a contraption called “Redzilla” to fire free T-shirts into the crowd) that fans have no expectation of receiving, they buy tickets for games that have been advertised as bobblehead games expecting to get the bobbleheads, which last season included All-Stars Joey Votto and Eugenio Suarez.

After quoting Reds’ broadcaster Marty Brennaman’s signature “this one belongs to the Reds,” Fischer as he neared the opinion’s conclusion also quoted Brennaman’s late broadcasting partner, Joe Nuxhall, saying the justices were “rounding third and heading for home.”

Dissenting Justice Mary DeGenaro wrote that the the Reds were escaping sales tax or use tax on promotional items that generally apply to similar purchases. She pointed out that the Reds often limit the promotional items, such as free to the first 30,000 fans.

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