Lionel Messi’s Arrival in MLS and the Antitrust Debate: Is the Season Pass a Cause for Concern?

Lionel Messi’s recent entry into Major League Soccer (MLS) has undoubtedly turned heads and attracted a surge of viewership to the league, thanks in large part to a groundbreaking $2.5 billion, ten-year partnership with Apple TV that made MLS games exclusive to its platform. However, the stipulation that fans must pay $99 per season (or $79 for Apple TV+ subscribers) to access Messi’s matches has ignited a legitimate debate about potential antitrust implications.

The crux of the matter lies in the Sherman Act’s Section 1, which prohibits contracts that restrain trade, but only if such restraints are considered unreasonable. While certain practices in other industries are automatically deemed illegal, the sports industry often receives special consideration in antitrust cases due to its unique nature. Nonetheless, it’s worth noting that historical cases, such as the 1951 NFL broadcasting restrictions, faced legal challenges under Section 1.

The Sports Broadcasting Act of 1961 introduced exemptions for specific joint agreements made by professional sports leagues, shielding them from antitrust laws. These exemptions were primarily designed for sponsored telecasting on basic cable channels like CBS and ABC. However, this exemption does not cover contracts with cable or satellite TV services that charge subscribers, which is particularly relevant in today’s context.

The NFL has encountered antitrust allegations in the past concerning its DirecTV NFL Sunday Ticket package, which effectively requires fans to purchase a costly subscription to gain access to all games, even those of minimal interest to them. This scenario closely mirrors the issue surrounding the MLS Season Pass, which bundles all matches together in a similar fashion.

MLS may argue that it operates as a single entity, potentially shielding it from Section 1 violations. However, the validity of this defense has faced challenges, and the claim that MLS is a single entity for broadcasting rights is subject to scrutiny, especially as competitors cannot evade antitrust liability by acting through intermediaries.

The NFL has put forth the argument that broadcasting agreements represent essential joint ventures for games to be televised, involving negotiations with players, game rules, schedules, and trademarks. This line of reasoning suggests that antitrust law might not necessarily compel teams to compete against one another for television rights.

In conclusion, the MLS Season Pass, akin to the NFL’s DirecTV package, could indeed find itself in the crosshairs of antitrust scrutiny. The outcome of such cases will undoubtedly carry significant implications for professional sports leagues and their broadcasting practices, potentially reshaping the way fans access their favorite games in the future.

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