Relaxing whilst doing Competition Law is not an Oxymoron

Archive for June 14th, 2010

Competition Law and Sport (IV)- The US Supreme Court’s decision in American Needle v NFL

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On May 24th the US Supreme Court issued its most important antitrust decision of the term in the case confronting American Needle and the NFL. As we expected, the Court unanimously rejected the NFL’s contention that its 32 teams should be treated as a “single entity” for antitrust purposes.

The last opinion authored by Justice Stevens reverses a previous decision by the 7th Circuit and holds that NFL’s teams “are still separate, profit-making entities, and their interests in licensing team trademarks are not necessarily aligned”. The Court rejected a formal analysis by ruling that the single entity created by the NFL to manage teams’ IP rights was merely an instrument at the service of its teams.

In essence, the Supreme Court’s Judgment preserves the status quo, thus fully subjecting agreements entered into by sport leagues to a rule of reason analysis. However, some have pointed out that American Needle could have wider implications affecting other ventures between competitors outside the sports world.

The Supreme Court showed some sympathy to the idea that leagues have a “legitimate and important” interest in “maintaining a competitive balance among athletic teams.” Nevertheless, the weight that shall be accorded to such interest in balancing the pro and anti-competitive features of a given agreement remains unclear. In any case, the Supreme Court appears to legitimize competitive balance as a potential redeeming virtue for Section 1 purposes. Whether Article 101 TFEU allows or not to consider similar interests remains highly controversial. What’s your take?

Written by Alfonso Lamadrid

14 June 2010 at 8:18 pm