Tarnished Twenty- The FindLaw Sports Law Blog

Blackout Lawsuit Against MLB, NHL Now a Class Action

Fans have long-complained about sports leagues' TV blackout rules, which restrict certain games from certain broadcasters. But one group of fans who decided to sue Major League Baseball and the National Hockey League over their use of blackouts got a huge boost last week.

U.S. District Court judge Shira Scheindlin granted the plaintiffs' motion to certify class-action status, finding that all consumers in the market for MLB and NHL content have the same alleged injury and can therefore sue as a group.

Here's what that could mean for fans down the road.

OMP, RSN, WTF?

Nope, they're not new metrics for stat-heads. An OMP is an out of market package that a fan who doesn't live near his or her favorite team is forced to buy to see games. And an RSN is a regional sports network, on which that fan would watch his or her favorite team, if he or she lived nearby. Got it? Good, because here's the meat of Judge Scheindlin's opinion:

According to plaintiffs, the ultimate consequence of this arrangement is that a Yankees fan living in Iowa who wants full access to a season's worth of Yankees games has to buy an "out-of-market package" ("OMP") -- a bundle of all out-of-market games, from every team -- instead of simply buying the YES Network. In plaintiffs' view, this restraint is unnatural and anticompetitive. In its absence, RSNs would distribute their content nationwide in a la carte form, and an Iowa-based Yankees fan (for instance) would be able to choose between (1) buying the YES Network by itself, or (2) buying an OMP. Furthermore, the competition between these options would also push the price of the OMP down. First, out-of-market fans would have more options for watching the games of their preferred teams. Second, all fans, whether they primarily follow their home teams or out-of-market teams, would be able to pay less for the OMP.

The judge is already hinting that the blackout rules are anti-competitive. MLB had already tried to toss the case out based on the league's antitrust exemption, but was rejected.

Blackouts Out, Game On?

While the lawsuit has a ways to go, the days of TV blackouts may be numbered. The NFL softened its stance on blackouts, and last year, the FCC repealed its blackout rules, and no longer prohibits cable and satellite operators from airing games that have been blacked out on a local station. While the FCC still allows leagues and programming distributors to contractually arrange blackouts, this class action lawsuit may change that, providing fans with something closer to a la carte programming.

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