UPDATE Jan 19, 2016 1:40 pm EST: A settlement has been reached.
In 2012, a class-action lawsuit was filed against Major League Baseball (MLB) accusing the MLB of violating the Sherman Antitrust Act with their blackout and television territory policy. The Sherman Antitrust Act states: “Every contract, combination in the form of trust or otherwise, or conspiracy, in restraint of trade or commerce among the several States, or with foreign nations, is declared to be illegal”. The Sherman Antitrust Act was enacted in 1890 to stop companies from forming monopolies.
The suit alleges that restricting access to games creates a monopoly for teams and their respective cities, limiting consumer choice and inevitably increasing the cost of televised baseball. Plaintiffs are also alleging that the blackout and television territorial policy restricts the ability for teams to compete on a national level against the league itself. For example, the Yankees or Red Sox are not allowed to negotiate their own deal with Fox Sports to broadcast all of their games nationally, instead they are limited to broadcast only in their geographical area.
The Plaintiffs have survived several hurdles the MLB have thrown at them to try to remove the case from court. In 2014, the Plaintiffs overcame their largest hurdle when Judge Scheindlin ruled that the blackout policy was not covered under MLB’s long time antitrust exception. In 2015, the Judge ruled that Plaintiffs may only obtain injunctive relief — or may only force the MLB to change its broadcasting policies — and not monetary damages.
The National Hockey League (NHL) settled out of court in a similar case, in which they were facing the same lawyers. The NHL decided to allow out-of-market fans the right to purchase access to all of an individual team’s games, at a lower cost than access to every game would have been.
Garber v. Major League Baseball is beginning today, January 19, 2016, and is expected to last for two weeks. This suit and the appeal process will last so long it will be irrelevant to the 2016 baseball season, but this has the potential to completely alter the way we watch baseball in the future.