Since the NFL and DirecTV unveiled the Sunday Ticket Package in 1994, fans who want to see the Sunday afternoon games of one specific out-of-market team have complained about having to buy all Sunday afternoon out-of-market games. They may now have a pathway for making that argument in court.
Via Reuters, the settlement of a class-action lawsuit challenging DirecTV’s NHL package has resulted in a commitment to allow fans to buy games featuring only one team for the next five years. The Internet-based package will cost at least 20 percent less than the bundled package.
A similar lawsuit is still pending against Major League Baseball.
In 2001, a class action filed against DirecTV’s NFL Sunday Ticket package resulted in a settlement that included the ability to purchase the games one Sunday at a time, from the last four weeks of the 2001 season through at least the 2002 season. The Sunday Ticket package otherwise has been sold for the last two decades as an all-teams, every-Sunday proposition.
While the practice of forcing consumers to buy all games instead of some games appears to be a clear violation of the antitrust laws, the sports leagues believe that the broadcast antitrust exemption, which allows TV rights to be sold by the bundle and not by the team, applies not only to the networks but also to the consumers. The settlements of these class actions, which leverage the uncertainty of the potential outcome in court to entice the lawyers to accept a large fee payment and the plaintiffs to receive a much smaller concession than they’d get through a victory, prevent the issue from ever being fully litigated.
Still, the door is now open for an ambitious group of lawyers to recruit a plaintiff or two, to file the lawsuit challenging the inability to buy the out-of-market games for only one team, to go through the motions of working up the case for a couple of years, and then to receive a multi-million-dollar fee as part of yet another settlement that never really settles the issue.