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On Antitrust Law and Major League Baseball: A whole new ballgame

Professional sports are a business. It’s an oft-forgotten truth for many sports’ fans, but occasionally, fans are swiftly reminded of the contentious corporate aspects of the games many love. One such reminder is the current antitrust controversies in the case of the Oakland Athletics and Major League Baseball (MLB).

The A’s, as the Athletics are referred to in passing, are not one of the MLB’s flagship franchises. The recent history of the A’s has been dominated by tales of success in the face of adversity, of winning despite a lack of funds in a competitive market full of big teams willing to spend anything to succeed.

Despite the A’s success and last year’s playoff berth, the A’s have failed to establish a dominating presence in the Bay Area. The team is23rd in average attendance out of 30 teams – not entirely hopeless, but not successful either. A mediocre fan base has a way of causing unrest and a wandering eye for a team looking to solidify itself for future years to come with a consistent market.

What do anti-trust law and baseball have to do with one another? Turns out they have a long and tortured history. The A’s, a team whose possible move falls within reasonable sensibilities and great interest, are hoping to relocate and rebrand in another city across the Bay – San Jose, a very different market. As a franchise that often struggles monetarily and only just passes muster year to year, such a move is financially attractive – San Jose is closer to Silicon Valley, exists closer to a very active portion of the Bay Area, and already supports one professional sports team rather well, the NHL’s San Jose Sharks. It is quite likely that when A’s management and ownership size up the prospect of San Jose, they see a city that offers the widespread support of the Bay Area and a more specific appeal than they’ve been able to find in Oakland.

But Bud Selig, longtime MLB commissioner, sees things a bit differently, and this is where questions of antitrust come into play. Selig is seemingly adverse to the idea of the move, and with the power of the MLB’s CBA (Collective Bargaining Agreement) and the U.S. Supreme Court behind him, he has thus far thwarted the team’s attempts to move.

That Supreme Court ruling, which exempted the MLB from antitrust violations, is one of ancient history in terms of the league. The ruling was passed down in 1922, a time when baseball was nearing its place as a national pastime but when broadcast television had not yet been invented and any given game was a locally enjoyed prospect only. It is on this basis that the court ruled (logically at the time) that baseball, as local enjoyment, protected the MLB from antitrust violations. But with the advent of broadcast television, that ruling no longer holds the logical weight it once did.

Today, consumption of the MLB product is a thoroughly nationwide, indeed worldwide proposition. Long gone are the days of baseball as exclusively a local product of reverence. The MLB is broadcast nationally several times a week on ESPN. It offers packages to satellite consumers that allow anyone in the country to essentially watch any game at any time. It boasts 2 million+ online subscribers to its digital app, MLB.TV, a product that allows fans to stream a large host of games. Perhaps no professional sports league in the world is as active in pushing its product into the national sphere as the MLB, and perhaps no league has made as much of an effort to make its product available to every person on every form of media.

And thus the modern legality and logical basis for the MLB’s antitrust exemption must be carefully examined if not dismissed out of hand. The league is not what it once was, and will never be again. It has always been a shifting league with rapid movement of franchises from place to place. For a team like the A’s, a team mired in a certain sense of uncertainty from year to year, moving is the only real alternative to achieve long term stability.

On the surface, the issue in question may simply appear to be a case of a smaller constituent challenging the dominance of its larger regulating body, and to some extent, that is indeed the continuing conflict. There has been great volatility of late in the realm of MLB regulation, regarding questions of steroid use and CBA modification.

But beyond these issues lies one of the biggest issues in any market – the problem (or saving grace, depending on your outlook) of competition. Do the MLB and other Bay Area teams like the San Francisco Giants have the right to block competition in an area for the sake of protecting their own interests?

The Giants are a more successful club than the A’s, and a constant mainstay in the area in and around San Francisco and San Jose. They are the proverbial sun that all baseball activity in the region revolves around on a yearly basis. To protect their own interests and that of the MLB, it is logical to understand their reluctance to allow any sense of creeping competition into that local dominance.

But why should the San Francisco Giants possess so much more agency, so much more weight in the MLB realm, than their counterparts across the Bay? Why do their interests trump that of a struggling team looking for hope and a new market? Competition often breeds positivity in the market and a preferable product in the long-term. In that sense, is the MLB really protecting its product by removing another team’s chance of ambition and exploration in the interests of ‘safety’?

None of these questions can be fully answered, but the fact remains: this conflict is not one of locality, though the geography clearly plays into the debate. It is an issue for all of the MLB to face, one that impacts millions of fans around the country. Baseball is locally loved, but more so, it is nationally relevant.

A league cannot focus so strongly on national emphasis on one hand and then claim locality so firmly on the other. The Supreme Court of 1922 is long gone, and the business of baseball is undoubtedly a whole new ballgame for all parties involved. This issue has many facets, many working pieces, and it understandable that the MLB and the Giants are uncomfortable with aspects of the move. But when it comes to the legality of the issue, to the power of the antitrust exemption of old, they are treading on increasingly shaky ground. The game has changed, and now so must the rules and regulations it lives by.

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