Boston Bruins 2, IRS 0

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The United States Tax Court today looked at whether pregame road meals for a National Hockey League (NHL) team are “meals and entertainment” expense (which would be deductible at 50% of cost) or a “de minimis fringe” and deductible at 100% of cost. As you might be able to guess from the title of the post, the Bruins shutout the IRS today.

First, if you’re interested in some of all of the background work that must be done for hockey, the opinion is a must-read. For example, I did not know that the road team in hockey does not receive any of the ticket revenue for regular season games. But I digress….

The IRS allowed pregame home meals but did not allow pregame road meals as a de minimis fringe; the IRS claimed that road (away) meals were a meal and entertainment expense. Of course, the meals must also be business-related but both the IRS and the Bruins agreed on that. As you might imagine, diet matters to NHL players:

Each away city hotel prepares pregame meals (i.e., breakfast, lunch, or brunch) and snacks that meet the players’ specific nutritional guidelines to ensure optimal performance for the upcoming game and throughout the remainder of the season. The Bruins contract in advance with each away city hotel for the provision of pregame meals and snacks, and the food is made available to all traveling hockey employees. The Bruins initiate the meal contracting process by providing a custom meal menu to the prospective away city hotel requesting specific types and quantities of food. The Bruins tend to keep food options consistent at each away city hotel to avoid players’ having gastric problems during the game. The Bruins always order the same quantity of food to feed all traveling hockey employees.

The de minimis fringe exception first requires that the eating facility be available to all, and not discriminate in favor of highly compensated employees. NHL teams bring a lot more than just the players on a road trip:

During the years in issue the Bruins traveled to away games with various personnel, which typically included: between 20 and 24 players, the head coach, assistant coaches, medical personnel, athletic trainers, equipment managers, communications personnel, travel logistics managers, public relations/media personnel, and other employees (traveling hockey employees). During the years in issue the Bruins’ traveling hockey employees traveled to every away game.

The Bruins easily passed this first hurdle because the food was provided to all. The major issue was whether these were a de minimis fringe benefit:

Employee meals provided in a nondiscriminatory manner constitute a de minimis fringe under section 132(e) if: (1) the eating facility is owned or leased by the employer; (2) the facility is operated by the employer; (3) the facility is located on or near the business premises of the employer; (4) the meals furnished at the facility are provided during, or immediately before or after, the employee’s workday; and (5) the annual revenue derived from the facility normally equals or exceeds the direct operating costs of the facility (the revenue/operating cost test).

The Bruins lease hotel facilities; that would make it appear that they would pass the first test. “The evidence establishes that the Bruins contract with away city hotels for the right to “use and occupy” meal rooms to conduct team business, and therefore these agreements are substantively leases.” And given that they contract with the hotel to provide the food, they meet the operating test.

It appears (from the opinion) that the IRS vigorously opposed the idea that the Bruins passed the “facility is located near the business premises of the employer” test. But the Court disagreed.

First and foremost, the nature of the Bruins’ business requires the team to travel to various arenas across the United States and Canada, and it is not feasible for the Bruins to be a viable NHL franchise without participating in hockey games outside of Boston. The NHL constitution and bylaws obligate each NHL team to play both home and away games during the regular season and, if the team qualifies, postseason games. Not only does the NHL require teams to participate in away games, but it also requires visiting teams to arrive in an away city at least six hours before the away game commences. The CBA imposes an additional requirement that visiting NHL teams travel to the away city the day before game day, if travel by airplane is greater than 150 minutes. Furthermore, if an NHL team fails to participate in an away game it must forfeit the game, lose playoff points, incur financial penalties imposed by the NHL, and indemnify the home team for loss of revenue and other expenses. Therefore, an integral part of the Bruins’ professional hockey business involves traveling throughout the United States and Canada to play away games as dictated by the NHL schedule. The job of the Bruins’ team includes playing one-half of their regular season games away from their hometown arena, and the financial health of the NHL franchise–not to mention the NHL itself–would be adversely affected if teams refused to play away games.

The Court ruled that staying in away city hotels was essential for the Bruins, and it’s clear that it would be impossible for the Bruins to do all this in Boston. “The evidence at trial also establishes that the Bruins could not perform all these activities at the opponent’s arena because of limited access and insufficient space and facilities.” Thus, the Court held that the road hotels were part of the Bruins’ business premises.

The IRS disagreed:

[T]he traveling hockey employees’ activities at away city hotels are insignificant because: (1) the activities at away city hotels are qualitatively less important than playing in the actual hockey game and (2) the Bruins spend quantitatively less time at each away city hotel than they do at the team’s Boston facilities.

The Court, though, thought that the IRS was offsides on these arguments.

Without the preparatory activities that occur at away city hotels the Bruins’ performance during games would likely be adversely affected. Furthermore, respondent provides no precedent to support the argument that business premises are limited to the location where the most qualitatively significant business activity occurs…Although the Bruins do spend quantitatively less time at each individual away city hotel than they do in Boston, this goes to the unique nature of a professional hockey team that is required to play one-half of its games away from home. It is therefore illogical for respondent to ignore the nature of the Bruins’ business and the NHL and analyze the amount of time spent at each away city hotel in isolation.

The Bruins also passed the revenue/operating cost test. “Meals are excludable to recipient employees under section 119 if they are (1) furnished for the convenience of the employer and (2) furnished on the business premises of the employer.” And the Court agreed with the Bruins here:

The evidence establishes that the pregame meals at away city hotels are provided to the Bruins’ traveling hockey employees for substantial noncompensatory business reasons. The Bruins provide pregame meals to traveling hockey employees at away city hotels first and foremost for nutritional and performance reasons…Providing meals to traveling hockey employees at away city hotels enables the Bruins to effectively manage a hectic schedule by minimizing unproductive time (e.g., finding and obtaining appropriate meals from restaurants in each city) and maximizing time dedicated to activities that help achieve the organization’s goal of winning hockey games. Petitioners have provided credible evidence establishing the business reasons for furnishing pregame meals to traveling hockey employees at away city hotels, and we will not second-guess their business judgment.

The IRS conceded the last part of the test (that the meals were furnished during, before, or after the workday). Thus, it was a shutout: Bruins 2, IRS 0 (the petitioners, the owners of the Bruins, were challenging an IRS audit covering two tax years).

Other professional sports teams may be filing amended returns (if they had only been taking half of the cost of meals) because it’s hard to imagine that the requirements for, say, a traveling NFL or NBA team aren’t similar to those of an NHL team. This is a full decision of the Tax Court, so it is precedential.

Case: Jacobs v. Commissioner, 148 T.C. No. 24

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