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Antitrust Lawsuit Against MLB Blackouts Will Proceed

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This could be good news, but there's still a long way to go.

You already know about MLB's television blackouts and how they might affect many Cubs fans in Illinois, Iowa, Indiana and Wisconsin this year unless the Cubs can make some sort of deal to have the 70 over-the-air games scheduled for 2015 carried in local markets in the blackout areas, or ask MLB to waive blackouts for those areas so that MLB.tv subscribers can see those games.

Proceeding through the court system is a proposed class-action lawsuit brought by MLB and NHL fans. It's hard to summarize, so let me post this description of a ruling in this pending case this week:

Last August, U.S. District Judge Shira Scheindlin issued a surprising decision in a proposed class-action lawsuit brought by fans of Major League Baseball and the National Hockey League upset at the high cost of out-of-market games on television and digital blackouts for in-market games. She rejected defendants' summary judgment motion and also decided that MLB's nearly century-old antitrust exemption doesn't apply to television broadcasting rights.

Aghast, MLB asked the judge for permission for an interlocutory appeal — one before trial — and when she refused, the league sought a writ of mandamus to get the 2nd Circuit's permission for an appeal anyway. The league seemed to be bolstered by a favorable outcome on January 15 at the 9th Circuit that interpreted its antitrust exemption with wide scope.

But on Wednesday, the 2nd Circuit came out with its order to deny MLB a chance to immediately appeal because it hadn't "demonstrated that exceptional circumstances warrant the requested relief."

At the district court level in New York, proceedings have continued and both sides are gearing up for a hearing next month over whether the judge should certify a class action.
There is, obviously, a long way to go before any blackouts are lifted. What's most interesting to me in the quote above is this:
She rejected defendants' summary judgment motion and also decided that MLB's nearly century-old antitrust exemption doesn't apply to television broadcasting rights.

Well, no wonder MLB officials were "aghast." They don't want anything getting in the way of the antitrust exemption, and courts in general have been hesitant to do anything that would revoke or change it. However, in this very narrow area (television broadcast rights) I could see a higher court agreeing with the plaintiffs. As the linked article says, though:

while the judge decided not to give the leagues and TV companies a pre-trial victory in the lawsuit, the plaintiffs still have work ahead of them. In the August ruling, the judge wrote, "It is not immediately clear whether the restrictions help or harm competitive balance overall."

That's almost certainly true, given the way MLB teams have divvied up the broadcast "territories" that now prohibit some fans from watching certain games even if they are willing to pay for them. It's really more a matter of whether a court will agree that this is a worthy class-action suit, in that a large group of people have been harmed by MLB's practices. I'm not a lawyer, but ti seems to me that case could very well be made. Stay tuned.