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New York judge rejects MLB's, NHL's attempt to squelch fan lawsuit alleging broadcast monopoly

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NEW YORK, N.Y. - Major League Baseball cannot hide behind its antitrust exemption to fend off a lawsuit from fans who say the league unjustly dictates television markets for its ballclubs, a judge says.

U.S. District Judge Shira A. Scheindlin's ruling came after two lawsuits were brought by fans against MLB and the National Hockey League to stop their strict control over television broadcast rights.

The judge wrote that exceptions to antitrust laws are to be construed narrowly and noted that the U.S. Supreme Court has "expressly questioned the validity and logic of the baseball exemption and declined to extend it to other sports."

Thus, she said, she was declining to apply the exemption to "a subject that is not central to the business of baseball, and that Congress did not intend to exempt — namely baseball's contracts for television broadcasting rights."

She said the lawsuits could proceed to trial as fans try to show that the leagues should be forced to open television markets for their games so customers would have more options at less expensive prices to watch games across the country. She said a trial would help show whether the leagues were accurate in saying the restrictions are good for the sports and their fans.

The judge said an expert for some fans who brought the lawsuits says that consumers would pay as much as 50 per cent less for packages of live game telecasts if there were more competition.

The ruling, which was signed on Monday, was placed in the public court record on Friday.

The lawsuits say that the leagues' clubs and some television broadcast entities collude to eliminate competition in the showing of games on the Internet and on television.

The fans seek a court declaration that the defendants engage in antitrust behaviour and appropriate remedies, including unspecified damages.

Telephone messages seeking comment from lawyers in the case were not immediately returned Friday.

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