League's antitrust exemption questioned

WASHINGTON — Declaring that nobody since Adam Smith has been “smarter then the market,” Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Penn.) vowed to introduce legislation that would strip the National Football League of its antitrust exemption.

The result, he predicted, would be a more level negotiating field between the league and broadcasters, with the greatest benefit ultimately accruing to consumers.

Specter said it’s time to let market forces reassert themselves, particularly in cable carriage of sports programming rights.

Under the antitrust exemption, the league negotiates as the representative of all 32 member teams.

Presiding over a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on Thursday, Specter maintained that consumers would be better served if cablers and broadcasters could negotiate with individual teams, which would not have the enormous clout that the NFL currently wields as a bloc.

Specter held a similar hearing last month, when he suggested the NFL may have violated antitrust laws with its Sunday Ticket package of games, and, at the very least, was abusing the antitrust exemption via the market power of the NFL Network cable channel.

The league did not respond to a request for comment.

According to David Carter, exec director of USC’s Sports Business Institute, neither the NFL’s alleged actions nor Specter’s hostility toward them are out of the ordinary.

“Sports leagues have a financial interest to push the envelope right to the limit where government threatens to intercede,” Carter said. “It’s a profit-maximizing strategy. What then happens is that the leagues pull back and a resolution is found so that no legislation or any lawsuits become involved.”

Even if Specter does introduce a bill, there’s no guarantee it will go anywhere — he will be in the minority party when Congress reconvenes in January, and the NFL is a powerful lobbying force. Still, Specter is a savvy lawmaker and could cause the league a headache or two.

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