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On Monday, the Supreme Court Antitrust ruling against the NFL essentially set a precedent that the NFL is, in fact, 32 independently operated teams and NOT one entity. So what does this mean for regular fans? Well, two things really. First we’ll probably be able to get NFL (and specifically Patriots) gear for significantly cheaper than we get it now and, secondly, there may be a deluge of horrible football video games on the market where not every team (and player) is represented.
Ten years ago, the NFL signed an exclusive deal with Reebok which said Reebok had exclusive rights to use NFL team logos on all of their caps and hats. This, in turn, really pissed of a suburban Chicago clothing company, American Needle, which had been making NFL hats for the past fifty years. After the deal with Reebok, American Needle filed an Antitrust suit in Illinois arguing the deal hurt consumers and competition citing a spike in hat prices immediately following. Personally I think American Needle is right on. In this country, people (myself included) are so rabidly obsessed with their football team they’ll pay $35 for a run-of-the-mill hat. If Reebok is the only company on the market supplying this hat, what is to stop them from running up the price? The goodness in their heart? Not in this country.
A judge in Chicago and the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals tossed out the antitrust suit on the grounds that the NFL was a “single entity” and cannot be accused of conspiring with itself. American Needle, and surprisingly, the NFL, both wanted this case to go to the Supreme Court to get a ruling once and for all. American Needle wanted the Supreme Court ruling so they could compete in the market. The NFL was looking for something that would essentially look strikingly similar to an Antitrust exemption.
During the case players and coaches in the NFL were pulling for American Needle. However both the NBA and NHL filed amicus briefs in support of the NFL and the MLS, NASCAR and the NCAA publicly supported the NFL. Why? Well, it’s not surprising the leagues were siding with the NFL because if the court ruled in favor of the NFL’s cause it would set a precedent that all professional sports leagues were one entity and could basically rule their respective leagues with an iron fist. The players and coaches in the NFL were on the side of American Needle because if the NFL could act as one entity the group of owners could get together and do things like roundly decide to NOT raise any salaries for a given amount of time thus taking away all negotiating power from an already quasi-futile NFLPA.
The Supreme Court ruling simply said that the NFL is 32 separate teams acting together with a common goal and NOT one entity. Now the American Needle case goes back to the local court to be tried again on those grounds. This case is clearly about football apparel and trying to maintain a competitive market but what does this mean for other football-related products….for instance video games? The Madden franchise has an exclusive deal with the NFL which is why the Madden games are the only video games on the market that have all the NFL teams and personalities. Depending on what happens with this ruling, given the precedent the Supreme Court just set, a possible alternative would be that each of the 32 teams in the NFL will have its own deal with a video game maker where they are the only team that is portrayed in the video game with the rest of the teams being generic. Is it likely? Probably not. But greed is a powerful thing. In fact, it’s what brought this case on to begin with. So depending on how this scene plays out, the more lucrative teams in the NFL (i.e. Patriots, Raiders, Cowboys) could find it more beneficial to sign their own deals with video game makers rather than lend their brand to the NFL’s deal with Madden. We’ll have to wait and see.