Next week, a lawsuit captioned Garber v. Office of the Commissioner of Baseball goes to trial. We’ve talked about it briefly in the past, but it’s an easy case to forget about given that it deals with antitrust and broadcast rights and stuff like that. It’s tremendously significant, however, and the fact that it has neither been settled nor dismissed before now means that the way baseball is broadcast could be radically altered in the very near future.
The short version of things is that a certified class of baseball fans is suing Major League Baseball, claiming that its broadcast policies — particularly broadcast territories and attendant blackout rules — illegally limit competition and consumer choice. Major League Baseball is arguing that such restrictions are, in the aggregate, better for consumers and ensure that more baseball games are broadcast.
You may scoff at baseball’s argument at first blush — how can restrictions lead to more of a product and/or a better product? — but it’s not ridiculous. If the restrictions were gone, perhaps the Yankees or the Red Sox become nationally broadcast teams? Perhaps a small market team, without a protected territory, decides it can’t make money broadcasting games, thus leading to a limited number of games for the fans of that team? Of course, that’s just Major League Baseball’s argument. All of us, as fans, can tell stories of the ridiculous and Kafkaesque nature of baseball’s blackouts and territorial restrictions which make watching the teams we want to see much harder and/or much more expensive than it should be.
Those are just the thumbnail sketches of the case. For a good, thorough analysis of it all, I highly, highly recommend that you go read Nathaniel Grow’s story on the case over at FanGraphs, where he breaks it down six ways from Sunday. Really, this is must-read material here.
It’s a bench trial, meaning that the judge, not a jury, will be making the decision here. For what it’s worth, Dan McLaughlin, an attorney/baseball writer/political writer who is familiar with the judge on this case just said that “knowing Judge [Shira] Scheindlin, expect a lengthy & detailed opinion; she won’t be afraid to break new ground.” There is no money at stake here, but Major League Baseball could be ordered at the end of this trial to change its broadcasting practices.
Stay tuned. Assuming you’re not blacked out, of course.