Consumers Win Right to Trial vs MLB Over Blackouts

A federal judge in New York ruled on Friday that Major League Baseball will face trial for violations of federal antitrust laws by stemming the exclusive broadcast territories for each of its 30 teams. Several regional sports networks and cable and satellite companies that benefit from the exclusive territories will also face trial on antitrust charges.

Consumers who purchased Extra Innings and MLB.tv sued MLB, the RSNs, and cable and satellite companies in 2012 claiming that the league’s exclusive broadcast territories resulted in fewer options and higher prices. The court’s order — issued late in the day on Friday — came in response to motions for summary judgment by MLB, the RSNs, and the cable and satellite companies. Federal court procedures permit defendants to use such motions to argue that the key facts in the case are undisputed and defeat the plaintiffs claims as a matter of law.

In its motion, MLB argued first that baseball’s antitrust exemption precluded claims based on the exclusive broadcast territories. But even if the exemption does not apply, MLB claimed, the exclusive TV territories are pro-competitive in that they lead to cooperation between the home and visiting teams, and strong regional broadcasts across the league. The RSNs and cable and satellite companies argued that they were, in essence, innocent bystanders to MLB’s exclusive territories and, therefore, can’t be liable under the antitrust laws. My previous posts explaining the lawsuit and the defendants’ motions for summary judgment can be read here and here.

In her order denying summary judgment for the defendants, Judge Shira Scheindlin ruled that baseball’s antitrust exemption does not preclude claims challenging the league’s exclusive broadcast territories. She then held that the consumer plaintiffs had submitted credible evidence — in the form of sworn testimony from economic experts — showing that the demolition of the exclusive broadcast territories would lead to more broadcast choices and lower prices. This evidence was sufficient to preclude summary judgment for MLB. As for the RSNs and cable and satellite companies, the court found evidence that they were not innocent bystanders but had, in fact, taken steps to ensure that the exclusive broadcast territories remained in place.

You can read a copy of the court’s 57-page decision here.

Even with this court decision, MLB’s exclusive broadcast territories will remain in place for some time. The court will hold a conference later this month at which she’ll likely set pre-trial deadlines and a trial date. At trial, the consumer plaintiffs will bear the burden of proving that the exclusive broadcast territories are unreasonable restraints on competition. A trial could last weeks and will inevitably be followed by more motions and an appeal.

The risks are high for MLB and its broadcast partners. A verdict in favor of the plaintiffs, if upheld on appeal, would upend the rights fee agreements of all 30 teams, the streaming rights that give rise to Extra Innings and MLB.tv, and the national TV contracts — deals which result in hundreds of millions of dollars flowing to MLB and its teams every year. With those kinds of risks, parties will often do what they can to avoid trial.

Stay tuned.

We hoped you liked reading Consumers Win Right to Trial vs MLB Over Blackouts by Wendy Thurm!

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Wendy writes about sports and the business of sports. She's been published most recently by Vice Sports, Deadspin and NewYorker.com. You can find her work at wendythurm.pressfolios.com and follow her on Twitter @hangingsliders.

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Ctownboy
Guest
Ctownboy

Territorial rights are stupid.

Every year at the start of MLB season, I get a free week of Extra Innings as a teaser to buy the package. However, because I live in Indianapolis, the following teams are blacked out of my region: the Reds, Cardinals, Cubs, White Sox, Brewers, Tigers and Indians. So, they want me to sign up and pay full price for the right to be able to watch only 25 of the 32 MLB teams, none of which are close to me and that I would normally want to be a fan of.

I don’t think so.

Daniel
Guest
Daniel

Who are you a fan of?

Chris
Guest
Chris

Worse than that. If you were a Pirates fan, you would lose 76 divisional match-ups (19 each for Cubs, Reds, Cardinals, and Brewers) and possibly 10 more inter-league games when they play one of your “local” teams.

John Thacker
Guest
John Thacker

For those of us in Eastern NC, there is basically *no* strictly legal way to watch any games involving the Orioles or Nationals, even signing up for cable. Annoying enough for Braves fans, but crazy for people actually fans of those two teams.

Puig's Translator
Guest
Puig's Translator

That’s pretty bad ^^^^^^^^^^^^^^
I am a Dodger fan living in Utah. Arizona and Colorado games are blacked out. I don’t have any kind of cable, so I am effed for those games. Had to listen to Kershaw’s No No on the audio feed.

Nick
Guest
Nick

I agree with your point a ton… just make the price of MLB.tv a bit higher and pay off the cable companies, because the blackouts stink.

I am curious who the 31st and 32nd MLB teams are though?

Bawfuls
Guest
Bawfuls

The price shouldn’t be significantly higher, they should just show the commercials on MLB.tv as well.

If you are in Territory X and want to use MLB.tv to watch a game that Company A has exclusive broadcast rights to in that area, why not just have MLB.tv allow you to watch the game, but only allow that feed (i.e. not the other team’s feed) and also show the commercials for that broadcast?