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NBA can’t limit WGN’s Bulls ‘casts

Striking a blow on behalf of couch potatoes and Michael Jordan fans everywhere, the U.S. Supreme Court yesterday let stand a decision barring the National Basketball Assn. from dictating the number of Chicago Bulls games airing on superstation WGN-TV.

The case stems from a 1990 NBA rule that limited to 20 the number of games a team could broadcast nationally each season. The NBA argued that the cap was necessary because superstations represented “a potent threat to the value of national television contracts–present and future.”

The high court’s refusal to become embroiled in the case could have ramifications beyond the NBA. Major League Baseball has made no secret its desire to curb the number of games aired each year on WGN (Chicago Cubs), WTBS (Atlanta Braves) and WOR (New York Mets).

In addition, the National Football League and the National Hockey League submitted legal briefs before the Supreme Court in support of the NBA.

Professional sports leagues argue that the saturation coverage by superstations diminishes the value of contests aired nationally under multimillion-dollar network and cable-TV contracts.

Challenging the NBA decision were the Bulls and WGN, the Chi-based Tribune Co.-owned superstation that picks up Bulls games by satellite and retransmits them to 34 million cable subscribers nationwide. The Bulls–which with superstar Michael Jordan is arguably the most popular team in pro basketball–have won back-to-back NBA titles.

U.S. District Judge Hubert Will in Chicago ruled against the NBA in the case, claiming the 20-game restriction was anticompetitive and a violation of the Sherman Antitrust Act. Decision was backed by Chicago’s U.S. Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals in a 3-0 vote.

The NBA appealed the case to the Supreme Court, claiming that the high court “has never decided how antitrust (law) should deal with the restraints inherent in all professional league sports.”

Yesterday’s decision was hailed by Shaun Sheehan, the D.C. lobbyist for Tribune. “This is good for the sports fans of America,” said Sheehan.

The NBA released a statement saying, “We are disappointed in the court’s decision and are exploring our options.”

WGN has been carrying 30 games a year nationally while the court fight has been waged. For the right to carry the games, Tribune pays the Bulls an amount based on a profit-sharing deal.

Still waiting to be decided in Chicago’s district court is a challenge to other NBA TV regs, including the “superstation blackout” rule.

Under that edict, superstations such as WTBS and WGN are prohibited from airing games on nights when Turner Network Television has “exclusive” rights to an NBA contest.

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