This posting was written by Jeffrey May, Editor of CCH Trade Regulation Reporter.
Subscribers to Internet services or television services offering live telecasts of “out-of-market” hockey and baseball games adequately alleged separate antitrust conspiracies involving the National Hockey League (NHL) and Major League Baseball (MLB), the federal district court in New York City has ruled (Laumann v. National Hockey League, December 5, 2012, Scheindlin, S.).
These sports fans alleged that, as a result of black-out or noncompete agreements, they were required to purchase all “out-of-market” hockey or baseball games even if they were only interested in viewing a particular game or games of one particular team located outside of their local markets. With the limited exception of nationally televised games, standard cable and satellite TV packages only offered “in-market” games (i.e., games played by the team in whose designated home territory the subscriber resided). A consumer interested in obtaining out-of-market games had two options: (1) television packages—such as NHL Center Ice and MLB Extra Innings—and (2) Internet packages—such as NHL Game Center Live and MLB.tv—which were controlled by the leagues.
The subscribers alleged a conspiracy involving the NHL, MLB, various clubs within the leagues, multichannel video programming distributors (MVPDs)—such cable distributor Comcast and satellite distributor DirecTV—and regional sports networks (RSNs). The RSNs are local television networks that negotiate contracts with individual NHL or MLB clubs to broadcast the majority of the local club’s games within that club’s telecast territory and to sell to the MVPDs. Some of the RSNs are owned by Comcast and DirecTV; however, two are independent of the MVPDs, but share ownership with an individual club. For example, Yankees Entertainment and Sports Networks, LLC is an RSN for New York Yankees that is co-owned with the New York Yankees.
The defendants challenged the television subscriber plaintiffs’ standing to sue on the grounds that they were indirect purchasers of the product in question and that their injuries were too remote from the alleged conduct. The television subscribers successfully argued that their claims fell within an exception to the Illinois Brick indirect purchaser doctrine, the court ruled. The middlemen were alleged to be co-conspirators.
The court, however, dismissed for lack of standing the plaintiffs who merely subscribed to Comcast and DirecTV, but did not subscribe to an out-of-market sports package. These plaintiffs did not allege that they were prevented from viewing games as a result of the black-out agreements or that they were charged supracompetitive prices for games that they wished to view. Rather, their claims were based on some unidentified increased price of their overall cable package allegedly stemming from the absence of competition from out-of-market baseball clubs and their RSNs. Their alleged injuries were both speculative and difficult to identify and apportion, the court ruled.
Finding that at least some of the plaintiffs had standing, the court went on to find that an agreement between the MVPDs and the RSNs and league defendants to restrain trade was adequately alleged. While the plaintiffs did not allege that the MVPDs entered into horizontal agreements, they plausibly alleged vertical agreements that not only facilitated, but also were essential to the horizontal market divisions and the agreement to cede control over out-of-market games to the leagues.
The plaintiffs adequately alleged harm to competition resulting from the market division agreements. The court rejected the defendants' argument that, because the NHL and MLB were legitimate joint ventures and some cooperation with respect to the production of games was necessary, their conduct—the production and distribution of live telecasts of games —was “core activity” immune from antitrust scrutiny. “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,” the court explained.
In addition, the subscribers to Internet services adequately alleged reduced choice, insofar as in-market games were not available from any seller over the Internet. The Internet packages were available directly through the leagues and also required the purchase of all out-of-market games. Neither local games nor nationally televised games were available through these packages. The alleged purpose of the limitation on Internet programming was to protect the RSNs’ regional monopolies and to insulate MVPDs that carried them from Internet competition, the court explained. As a result, the Sherman Act, Sec. 1 claim could proceed against all defendants.
Lastly, the court refused to dismiss claims against the NHL and MLB for conspiracy to monopolize the markets for video presentations and Internet streaming of major league hockey or baseball games. However, the plaintiffs did not support Sherman Act, Sec. 2 claims against the RSNs or MVPDs in the market for production of baseball and hockey games. Thus, the conspiracy to monopolize claim was dismissed against the RSN and MVPD defendants, but could proceed against the remaining defendants.