As trial looms, baseball fans already won in MLB TV dispute

NEW YORK (AP) — Major League Baseball fans are already the winners in a lawsuit scheduled for trial next week after baseball agreed to let consumers buy single-team television packages for the first time.

MLB lawyers told a Manhattan federal court judge last week that fans will be able to buy the new packages this season if they don’t live in their favorite team’s market. In the past, consumers were forced to buy the games of all baseball teams because individual teams were not sold separately.

The lawyers noted in court papers filed publicly last week that the desire for single-team packages seemed to be the driving force behind the 2012 class-action lawsuit brought on behalf of fans.

The decision to enable single-team TV package purchases came after lawyers for the National Hockey League last year settled their side of the court case. The NHL agreed to let fans buy single-team packages.

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A message left with a plaintiff’s lawyer was not immediately returned Friday. A spokesman for baseball declined comment.

The new packages have not yet been publicly announced by baseball and pricing information about them has not been released.

Though a trial that was to feature testimony from baseball’s commissioner, among others, is scheduled to start Tuesday, the case seems likely to settle.

Judge Shira Scheindlin urged both sides at a November conference to work toward a settlement after MLB lawyer Beth A. Wilkinson said baseball had decided to implement the same terms for baseball that were reached by the NHL even without a settlement in place.

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“We’re at a bit of a loss of why we can’t come to a resolution,” Wilkinson said then.

Scheindlin ruled in 2013 that baseball could not use its antitrust exemption to defend against the lawsuit.

The lawsuits had claimed that the leagues’ clubs and some television broadcast entities collude to eliminate competition in the airing of games on the Internet and on television.

Baseball had defended a system of issuing television contracts developed decades ago that was designed to protect each baseball team’s region from competitors.

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More recently, baseball has multiplied options for fans so that they can get games on various electronic devices.

“Make no mistake, this mission is not altruistic,” baseball’s lawyers said in court papers written last month. “Baseball faces fierce competition, including from other sports offerings and an increasing slate of non-sports entertainment and leisure options.”

Last month, plaintiffs’ lawyer Edward Diver wrote in court papers that baseball had created a monopoly that cheats fans because out-of-market games can only be obtained through the league at prices the league chooses.

He said the current system resulted after MLB agreed in the early 1980s to divide the country into geographic territories so only one or a few teams could distribute game in any area.

“Here again, the very purpose of the agreement is to create this monopoly power: to insulate teams from competition and increase their ability to market their product without any fear of being outcompeted by other baseball teams,” Diver wrote.