David Kiefer writes:
With the calendar turning to September, that means that NBA training camps will open in less than one month. And while the players’ main offseason focus was on how the influx of new national television revenue will put more money in their pockets (8 players signed new or amended contracts worth more than $100 million this past offseason), a lesser-celebrated event – in this case, a change in the law – will lead to a number of players keeping a bit more money in their own pockets.
Since July 1, 2009, NBA players who have played games in the state of Tennessee – both as visiting players and as members of the Memphis Grizzlies – have paid a $2,500 per game “Professional Privilege Tax for Professional Athletes,” up to a maximum of $7,500 per year. See T.C.A. §§ 67-4-1702, 1703. The tax was particularly onerous on minimum salary players, as the players’ union contended that minimum salary players had a nearly 100% effective tax rate for games played in Tennessee (after accounting for federal income taxes and any other state income taxes due in the player’s home state). However, as of June 1, 2016, NBA players no longer have to pay Tennessee’s $2,500-per-game privilege tax.
In passing House Bill 1134 and Senate Bill 1247 in April 2014, the Tennessee legislature removed NBA players (as well as NHL players, who were also subject to the tax) from the list of individual required to pay the state’s privilege tax. The elimination of the tax on NHL players was effective immediately, while the tax on NBA players remained in force through the 2015-16 NBA season.
Tennessee’s Professional Privilege Tax for Professional Athletes was unique for a few reasons. First, Tennessee has no state income tax, which meant that the tax was structured as an occupational license tax. NBA and NHL players – two groups of individuals whom typically do not require state licenses or certification to work as professional athletes – were nonetheless required to annually pay the $2,500-per-game tax, which was well in excess of the $400 tax due from other Tennessee-based professionals (such as accountants, architects and attorneys).
Second, the money collected from tax was “deposited into a municipal government fund located in the same municipality as the indoor sports facility in which the game was played.” T.C.A. §§ 67-4-1703(e). In essence, part of the tax revenues collected were paid to the operator of FedEx Forum in Memphis, which happened to be the ownership group of the Memphis Grizzlies (the portion of the revenues attributable to NHL players went to the operator of Nashville’s Bridgestone Arena, which also happened to be the owners of the Nashville predators). Those tax revenues were then used to attract other sports and entertainment events to the Memphis area, such as bowl games, concerts and the like.
Finally, Tennessee’s privilege tax was arguably unconstitutional. Prior to the tax being repealed, NBA players sought refunds of previously paid privilege taxes on the basis that the privilege tax violated the United States Constitution’s dormant commerce clause, due process clause and equal protection clause. Had the cases proceeded to litigation, these arguments could have proved meritorious, as Ohio’s Supreme Court recently analyzed similar taxes involving Cleveland’s municipal income tax and ruled that Cleveland’s tax violated players’ constitutional rights. See Hillenmeyer v. Cleveland Bd. of Rev., 144 Ohio St.3d 165, 2015-Ohio-1623, ¶ 49 (rejecting equal protection challenge and declining to address commerce clause challenge, but holding that the tax “imposes an extraterritorial tax in violation of due process, because it foreseeably imposes Cleveland income tax on compensation earned while Hillenmeyer was working outside Cleveland”); Saturday v. Cleveland Bd. of Rev., 142 Ohio St.3d 528, 2015-Ohio-1625 (declining to address constitutional challenges to Cleveland’s municipal income tax but holding that “a professional athlete whose team plays a game in Cleveland but who remains in his home city participating in team-mandated activities is not liable for Cleveland municipal income tax”).
Now, Tennessee’s privilege tax is no more, and players on all 30 NBA teams will leave Memphis with a little more money in their pockets.
David Kiefer is an associate in the Labor & Employment Department, resident in the firm’s Pittsburgh, PA office.