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Nearly $100 million in counterfeit sports merchandise seized ahead of Super Bowl

U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers sort through boxes
U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers open boxes of counterfeit sports-themed goods the agency has recovered.
(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)
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Nearly $100 million in counterfeit sports-related items were seized at flea markets and retail outlets around Los Angeles in the lead-up to Super Bowl LVI, federal officials announced this week.

More than 267,500 items, including fake jerseys, jackets, hats, rings, souvenirs and tickets were seized as part of “Operation Team Player,” a joint effort involving U.S. Homeland Security Investigations, Customs and Border Protections, the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department and the NFL, among other agencies.

The items were worth an estimated $97.8 million, authorities said.

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Counterfeit championship rings were on display.
During a press conference held at Air Freight Federal Inspection Facility near LAX, some of the counterfeit championship rings were on display.
(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)

“We will not tolerate those who victimize fans by selling fake merchandise and tickets,” Lt. Geoff Deedrick of the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department said during a news conference Thursday, adding that legitimate distributors often “lose significant business, and it’s a significant loss to the community.”

The Super Bowl showdown between the L.A. Rams and the Cincinnati Bengals will be held Sunday at SoFi Stadium in Inglewood.

Federal agents worked with local authorities in Los Angeles to identify flea markets, retail outlets, pop-up shops and street vendors selling the bogus items, which were often marketed as legitimate, officials said.

They also noted that much of the illegal activity has moved online, pushing more of their enforcement efforts toward websites selling and distributing the goods.

“Beware of phony online ads for products and tickets, whether they’re on websites, social media or marketplace listings,” said NFL intellectual property counsel Bonnie Jarrett. “If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.”

The average ticket price for Super Bowl LVI between the Rams and Cincinnati Bengals at SoFi Stadium is $10,540. And that doesn’t include parking.

Los Angeles poses a particular challenge for those policing the sale of the counterfeit items because of its size, traffic, port and other international facilities, officials said.

The value of this year’s seizures is already more than double that of last year, when Operation Team Player seized $45 million worth of counterfeit merchandise. More than $5 million in products have been removed from the marketplace since the middle of January alone, said Deedrick, of the Sheriff’s Department.

“Remember, carefully inspect your merchandise,” he said. “Look for holograms and logos of the NFL.”

The NFL and law enforcement officials also warned fans about counterfeit tickets, noting that admission to this year’s game will be digital-only. Tickets can be purchased through the NFL ticket network consisting of Ticketmaster, StubHub, Seat Geek and other sites guaranteed by the agency.

A Homeland Security Investigations officer carries a box of counterfeit goods at the Air Freight Federal Inspection Facility
A U.S. Homeland Security Investigations(HSI) officer carries a box of counterfeit goods at the Air Freight Federal Inspection Facility near LAX.
(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)

Screen shots of tickets, PDF printouts and paper tickets will not be valid, said Michael Buchwald, senior counsel with the NFL.

“Do not buy tickets from unreliable sources,” Buchwald said. “Whether online, outside the stadium or elsewhere, that will leave you open to fraud.”

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement was among the agencies involved in the operation, but HSI spokesman James Curry told The Times that enforcement actions will not be conducted at the game.

“The Super Bowl is one of those places where you’re not allowed to conduct any ICE immigration enforcement action whatsoever,” he said. “If there is an immigration enforcement action, we have to already know that they are undocumented. We wouldn’t actually go up to people and start asking, ‘Can we see your papers?’”

He said people may see HSI agents in the area who are enforcing intellectual property rights by seizing the fake goods.

They do this year-round, Curry said, but “there is a heightened focus during the Super Bowl.”

Times staff writer Brittny Mejia contributed to this report.

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