Judge allows sports fans to sue over TV rights

JONATHAN STEMPEL AND LIANA B. BAKER
Last updated 09:10 06/12/2012

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A federal judge today allowed sports fans to pursue a lawsuit accusing Major League Baseball, the National Hockey League and various networks of antitrust violations in how they package games for broadcast on television or the Internet.

US District Judge Shira Scheindlin in Manhattan said the subscribers could pursue claims that the packaging has reduced competition, raised prices, and kept them from watching their favorite teams located outside their home markets.

"Plaintiffs in this case - the consumers - have plausibly alleged that they are the direct victims of this harm," she wrote.

The defendants include Major League Baseball, the National Hockey League, several teams in both sports, various regional sports networks, Comcast Corp, DirecTV and Madison Square Garden Co.

Calls to lawyers for the defendants and the subscribers were not immediately returned.

Media companies, leagues and teams can often justify higher costs to watch their products by citing the higher costs of doing business, and that individual teams have rabid followings among viewers willing to pay more to watch events live.

The case arose from what the subscribers said were anticompetitive agreements between service providers such as Comcast and DirecTV, sports networks and the leagues.

These subscribers contended that if they wanted to watch games from outside their home markets, they were required to buy packages that included all out-of-market games, even if they were interested only in one or a few non-local teams.

Thus, for example, a New York Yankees fan living in Colorado could not pay simply for access to that team's games, but had to buy a product such as the MLB Extra Innings television package. Other packages at issue in the case were NHL Center Ice for television, and MLB.tv and NHL GameCenter LIVE for the Internet.

HARM TO COMPETITION

The defendants argued that the subscribers' alleged injuries were only indirectly related to the alleged wrongful conduct, and that Major League Baseball and NHL games did not qualify as "distinct products" subject to antitrust scrutiny.

Comcast, DirecTV and the sports networks also contended that their conduct was "presumptively legal."

Scheindlin nonetheless let much of the case go forward.

"Making all games available as part of a package, while it may increase output overall, does not, as a matter of law, eliminate the harm to competition wrought by preventing the individual teams from competing to sell their games outside their home territories in the first place," she wrote.

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The judge did dismiss claims that Comcast, DirecTV and the sports networks conspired to monopolise markets, while allowing similar claims against Major League Baseball and the NHL to proceed. She also dismissed some individual plaintiffs from the case, saying they lacked standing to sue.

Among the dozens of defendants were the Yankees and its YES network; the Chicago White Sox baseball and Chicago Blackhawks hockey teams; the New York Rangers hockey team; and various Comcast SportsNet and Root Sports networks.

Last month, Rupert Murdoch's News Corp said it would buy a 49 percent stake in the YES network.

Baseball itself has had an antitrust exemption since 1922, but has long faced periodic calls from Congress and elsewhere that it be repealed.

The cases are Laumann et al v. National Hockey League et al, US District Court, Southern District of New York, No. 12-01817; and Garber et al v. Office of the Commissioner of Baseball et al in the same court, No. 12-03074.

- Reuters

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