WASHINGTON -- The professional leagues in basketball, football and hockey may have lost their legal right to limit their individual teams' broadcast of games on cable TV, after the Supreme Court yesterday refused to hear an NBA appeal.
The court's action also seems to raise legal doubt about the leagues' overall power to limit competition among their member teams. Football and hockey leagues claimed, in fact, that the very existence of pro sports was at stake.
Despite those sweeping complaints, the court order was limited, involving only the legality of the 20-game ceiling that NBA owners set two years ago on teams' games on cable superstations. That ceiling had been ruled illegal as an antitrust violation by a federal appeals court ruling last spring.
The Supreme Court voted -- apparently 9-0 -- to leave that decision intact. As usual, the court gave no explanation for its action.
The Chicago Bulls have sold up to 30 games a season on Chicago's WGN -- a superstation that can be picked up across the country -- and the Bulls have kept all of those revenues.
By contrast, when the 27 teams' games are sold on regular network television, all 27 share in the revenues. The NBA insisted that its 20-game limit on superstation cablecasts was designed to keep teams like the Bulls from generating a lot of their own revenue, while taking a "free ride" on league promotional efforts involved in selling the league to the regular TV networks.
The appeals court had ordered the NBA to stop enforcing the 20-game cable limit, because it said the league had used that to curb competition among its member teams for TV revenues. The appeals court said that was in fact not "free-riding" by the Bulls, so the NBA had not proved it needed to have the 20-game ceiling on Bulls' games on WGN.
When NBA owners adopted the 20-game curb, the league said it feared that the spread of superstation cablecasting of team games would compete with the league's own lucrative national TV contracts, and thus undercut those contracts.
The owners of the Bulls and the New Jersey Nets voted against the cable limit. The Bulls, joined by station WGN, then filed an antitrust challenge in federal court.
NBA teams play 82 regular-season games. Of the Bulls' 82, only seven were scheduled for network broadcast -- on NBC or Turner Network Television.