lawsuit over out-of-market broadcast blackouts for MLB, NHL games will go ahead

Michelle Clancy | 07-12-2012

Sports fans will be able to continue a broad-ranging lawsuit against Major League Baseball, the National Hockey League, various teams, Comcast, DirecTV, Madison Square Garden Co and a handful of regional sports networks over how they package out-of-market games for broadcast.

U.S. District Judge Shira Scheindlin in New York gave consumers the go-ahead for pursuing the antitrust-based litigation, which stems from the practice of restricting broadcast availability to non-local games. Subscribers are alleging a collusion between the parties to reduce competition and command exorbitant pricing.

"Plaintiffs in this case - the consumers - have plausibly alleged that they are the direct victims of this harm," she wrote.

At issue is the fact that most sports fans have basic access to games that feature either local, regional or divisional teams. Fans that live outside of their team's market however usually find themselves without a means—even over the Web—of watching games. A Texas Rangers fan living in Boston will typically only be able to see the games in which the Rangers are playing the Red Sox, for instance.

There is one way around the blackouts—buying a premium sports package like MLB Extra Innings, NHL Center Ice for television, and and NHL GameCenter LIVE on the Web. Those are available from DirecTV and most cablecos. On Comcast, the MLB Extra Innings package is an additional $140 per season.

The problem, the suit alleges, is that those packages provide access to every out-of-market game there is—and that's overkill for most consumers. It's unlikely that the Rangers fan in Boston would use the package to watch, say, the Chicago Bulls or the LA Lakers, just for kicks.

The plaintiffs seek damages and an end to the packages, which lead to "reduced output, diminished product quality, diminished choice and suppressed price competition," they say.