Major League Broadcasting Challenged by Blacked-Out Fans
The National Hockey League and Major League Baseball broadcasting policies are headed for trial after the dismissal of their motions for summary judgment in an antitrust lawsuit last week.
The plaintiffs are a class of frustrated NHL and MLB sports fans who filed a lawsuit against the organizations two years ago, claiming the restrictions on local television broadcasting (including blackouts) violate sections of the Sherman Antitrust Act. The lawsuit alleges that broadcasting territory restrictions and collusion between the leagues and the broadcasting companies unfairly increases the price of cable sports packages and internet sports streaming.
Claiming exceptions under the Sherman Act, the MLB, NHL, Comcast, and DirecTV all brought motions to have the claims against their respective companies dismissed as a matter of law. The defendants argue that the imposed broadcasting restrictions help to maintain a competitive balance and increase the number of games that can be telecast for free. Essentially, they argue that blackouts and other viewing restrictions ultimately benefit the viewers.
Judge Shira Scheindlin of the Southern District of New York ruled that the plaintiffs have raised an issue as to whether the overall competitive impact of the territorial broadcasting rules is positive or negative. Therefore, a trier of fact is necessary to weigh the evidence at trial; the judge dismissed the defendants’ motions and scheduled a conference for August 20.
The NFL is similarly feeling heat over its blackout rules this week.
FCC representative Ajit Pai spoke out against the NFL’s blackout rules, appealing to FCC Chairman Wheeler to hold a vote on changing the NFL’s exception from antitrust laws. In December, the FCC voted unanimously to open the topic up to the public’s opinion. If a vote is held, Pai will need two more of the remaining four members of the FCC to vote in favor of changing what he calls “outdated” blackout rules. Chairman Wheeler has not provided a statement as to whether that vote will be held.
NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell stated that the NFL’s blackout policy has very little impact on their business, and that changing it could have a substantial impact on the ability to provide free football broadcasts. He stated the proposed change is “devastating to our consumers and consumers in general.”