Movement to Black Out Blackout Rules Taking Baby Steps

Sports fans living far away from their favorite teams’ home states and cities have long been forced to skip games, or pay more than what they’d like to watch their cherished organizations play. The blackout rules that spawned this dilemma are the subject of scorn among fans, many of whom are attempting to change how games are shown on television through lawsuits.

blackout rulesFans’ battle against the blackout 

The major sports leagues’ various blackout rules have repeatedly been challenged by fans frustrated by the fact that if they don’t live close to where their home team plays, they have to choose between forgoing viewing out-of-market games completely or purchasing expensive bundle packages. To combat these limitations, fans filed class action suits against the NHL, the MLB, the leagues’ various organizations and broadcasters in 2012. While the lawsuit against the MLB and its broadcasters is ongoing, the case against the NHL ended with a settlement agreement which could ultimately affect the way that all four major sports are viewed in the U.S. 

A fan of the New York Mets living in the Midwest, for example, cannot purchase only Mets games at reduced prices. That individual would have to buy a bundle package that includes other teams, such as the New York Yankees, Boston Red Sox and a bevy of other teams the person might be mildly interested in at best, or at worst, hates. This could lead to that individual missing out on what is turning out to be a rare season in recent Mets history – a very unfortunate circumstance for that fan. 

However, the settlement in the class action against the NHL, and the unresolved nature of the suit against the MLB, could be signs of change regarding the blackout rules that have long frustrated fans such as the aforementioned hypothetical individual. 

The NHL settlement led to revisions to the league’s Game Center Live package. Fans can now choose to stream a single team’s games for $105 per season, rather than being forced to choose the league-wide package, which includes all 30 teams and costs $159 per season. Individuals who purchase the streaming option now have the option to watch their favorite team’s out-of-market games, without paying extra for every other organization’s matchups. However, in-market games remain blacked out on Game Center Live. Ultimately, the NHL settlement wasn’t a complete victory for fans, but rather, a baby step toward overcoming blackout rules. 

Blackout rules could constitute anti-competitive behavior 

One crucial detail to the settlement agreement between fans and the NHL, as well as the ongoing suit against the MLB, is the fact that U.S. District Court Judge Shira Scheindlin conceded that blackout rules are likely violations of antitrust regulations. This acknowledgement could ultimately influence the MLB case, and is the tiny detail that could result in big changes for the way fans view sports in the U.S. 

Fans’ demand for access to regional sports networks regardless of where they live is similar to the pressure on all sorts of cable companies to offer a la carte packages – with which subscribers can choose which channels they want. 

The MLB and NHL and their broadcasters aren’t the only organizations being accused of antitrust violations due to how they offer games. DirectTV’s NFL Sunday Ticket has also been hit with charges of anti-competitive practices by fans. A class-action lawsuit alleges that the satellite television provider’s arrangement with the NFL – which covers how markets are divided and blackout rules are enforced, as well as what all this will cost consumers – unfairly damages NFL fans who would like to purchase a package of their favorite teams’ games, rather than a bundle of league-wide match ups. 

The various challenges to blackout rules established by the three leagues and their broadcasting partners, subscribers’ overall preference for cable providers to move toward a la carte offerings and at least one judge’s opinion that these restrictive rules could constitute antitrust violations, seem to indicate that the argument for blacking out certain regions is weakening. However, the small step forward in the NHL settlement indicates massive overhauls aren’t in store in the coming months.

If you believe a league’s anti-competitive behavior is damaging you as a fan, contact a sports law attorney to learn more about what you can do. 

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Anthony R. Caruso is a business transactional attorney in New York and New Jersey with experience in structuring, negotiation and completion of legal deals involving business, entrepreneurs, athletes and performers.

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