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Lawsuit Regarding MLB TV Blackouts Will Go To Trial

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Though nothing's been decided yet, even the fact that MLB is going to have to go to court over blackouts is a big win for baseball fans.

Jim Rogash

Still annoyed at Major League Baseball's TV blackout policies? Live in Iowa or somewhere else that you can't watch your favorite team?

You might be in luck. Last week, a federal judge ruled that MLB can, in fact, face trial for antitrust violations related to local broadcast territories. Fangraphs' Wendy Thurm, an attorney by training who is well-versed in baseball TV issues, sums up this one:

In her order denying summary judgment for the defendants, Judge Shira Scheindlin ruled that baseball’s antitrust exemption does not preclude claims challenging the league’s exclusive broadcast territories. She then held that the consumer plaintiffs had submitted credible evidence — in the form of sworn testimony from economic experts — showing that the demolition of the exclusive broadcast territories would lead to more broadcast choices and lower prices.

The "consumer plaintiffs" referred to above are people who are likely just like you -- they're among people who have purchased MLB Extra Innings and and who sued MLB, the regional sports networks that carry games and the cable and satellite companies who carry them two years ago, charging:

that the league’s exclusive broadcast territories resulted in fewer options and higher prices.

Well, that pretty much seems like a no-brainer.

This doesn't mean that blackouts will be lifted any time soon, though, as Thurm explains:

The court will hold a conference later this month at which she’ll likely set pre-trial deadlines and a trial date. At trial, the consumer plaintiffs will bear the burden of proving that the exclusive broadcast territories are unreasonable restraints on competition. A trial could last weeks and will inevitably be followed by more motions and an appeal.

The risks are high for MLB and its broadcast partners. A verdict in favor of the plaintiffs, if upheld on appeal, would upend the rights fee agreements of all 30 teams, the streaming rights that give rise to Extra Innings and, and the national TV contracts — deals which result in hundreds of millions of dollars flowing to MLB and its teams every year. With those kinds of risks, parties will often do what they can to avoid trial.

Given that this suit was originally filed two years ago, and what's at stake if MLB and its teams and its broadcast partners lose, this one will likely go "with all deliberate speed," which is to say, with the speed of an inning with four pitching changes. Even though MLB's overall antitrust exemption isn't apparently at risk here -- only antitrust charges having to do with broadcast territories -- you wouldn't think that MLB would want any sort of court ruling opening up that exemption, which probably should have never been given in the first place and should have probably been repealed decades ago, to further scrutiny.

Thurm says "parties will often do what they can do avoid trial" in situations like these and I'd agree. This one will likely result in some sort of settlement that will open up some, if not all, of the blackouts; perhaps MLB will be more open to showing more games on mobile devices, for example, since that's the way many more people are watching them these days anyway.

Thurm's article ends: "Stay tuned." Couldn't have said it better.