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Fallout from tax reform: No more deductions for pricey suites and sports tickets

Spectators sit in the club level during the first period of Game 7 of the Eastern Conference final against the Washington Capitals on May 23 at Amalie Arena, in Tampa. (DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times)
Published May 31, 2018

Like many local businesses, Baldwin Risk Partners takes clients to Amalie Arena for Lightning games and also has a suite at Raymond James Stadium.

Last year, those entertainment expenses came with a sizable tax deduction. But thanks to the recent federal tax overhaul, that deduction is going away.

Now businesses are taking a hard look at whether tickets and suites and other client entertainment is providing enough of a return on their investments. Are the venues helping them land enough deals or retain their existing clients?

Baldwin Risk Partners is banking on the benefit, deciding to hang on to their tickets and suite.

"The changes have definitely brought a heightened level of scrutiny to how entertainment dollars get spent," said Trevor Baldwin, president of the insurance brokerage firm, which is also the parent company of BKS-Partners. "For us, we are in a relationship business, so the opportunity to develop relationships with our clients and interact with them outside of a strictly business environment is valuable."

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Tightening deductions will help offset some of the massive cuts in the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017, which included slashing the corporate tax rate to 21 percent. According to estimates from the Joint Committee on Taxation, scrapping the entertainment deduction should generate almost $19 billion in tax revenue by 2022 and more than $41 billion by 2027.

For small businesses that only buy a few tickets each year, the difference won't add up to much. But for businesses that spend $1 million on client entertainment, their tax bills could rise by tens of thousands of dollars, depending on what tax rate they paid last year.

The Lightning, which also controls Amalie Arena, has received inquiries from season-ticket holders but was not aware of any cancellations due to the changes in the tax law, said Bill Wickett, executive vice president of communications.

"We are aware of the new changes in the tax code and comprehensively communicated to season-ticket members," Wickett said, "but in the end, advised them to work through their own tax advisers to make final determinations on what might be best for them."

Allie Tschirhart, a certified public accountant and manager with the firm Warren Averett in Tampa, said the changes have prompted her clients to assess how they spend their entertainment budgets.

Before, businesses might have renewed season tickets or a suite in an arena without much thought. Now, they are running the numbers.

"For the most part, our clients don't have these sports tickets or the concert tickets or suites to get a tax deduction," Tschirhart said. "They use them to connect with their clients, for the camaraderie, for those moments that bring them together with their clients. The need to connect with clients is never going to go away."

Tschirhart added that the majority of her clients have liked the changes to the tax law, despite losing the entertainment deduction.

"Overall, the reaction has been so positive based on the other savings they are receiving," Tschirhart said. "They aren't focusing as much on what has been taken away, as the savings they are getting in other areas."

When certified public accountant Jennifer Ray put on a presentation in March about the new tax law, she sensed the crowd wasn't totally engrossed.

"As much as they say they want to know about the tax law changes, it's still tax law, so it's only so interesting," she said with a laugh. "But I noticed when I came to the part on meals and entertainment, the room perked up. They can see that this is something that could apply to their everyday business."

Ray, a senior tax manager at Frazier & Deeter in Tampa, said many businesses are still assessing whether to change how they spend their entertainment budget. Some are deciding between various forms of entertainment, she said.

"They want to know where they get the most bang for their buck. Whether that's taking clients to sporting events versus taking people golfing versus some other activity," she said. "Clients that may have used a suite or tickets mostly as a marketing tool, now may consider changing their approach and instead do a sponsorship. It's still getting their name out there, but in a different way that is a deductible approach."

The new corporate tax rate will soften the blow of losing the entertainment deduction for corporations that hang onto their tickets and suites, or buy new ones. Instead of paying up to 35 percent, they will only pay 21 percent.

"That can be a big difference if you're paying $100,000 for a suite," Tschirhart said.

The changes have also raised some uncertainty about how the new law applies when meals and entertainment collide. Meals with clients or associates remain 50 percent deductible if business is conducted and they aren't too lavish. But what if a celebrity chef makes the meal, is that a meal or entertainment? And what if the meal takes place at a baseball game or during another form of entertainment?

"There's a lot of caveats around that and that's the squishy part," Ray said.

Both Ray and Tschirhart expect the Internal Revenue Service to offer some written guidance later this year.

"It's not necessarily the fastest moving machine when it comes to getting guidance," Ray said. "But because the tax law was passed so quickly, hopefully the IRS is waiting to get a lot of input before publishing the regulations."

Contact Graham Brink at gbrink@tampabay.com. Follow @GrahamBrink.

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