The legal argument that San Jose is missing out on the economic benefits of baseball because MLB refuses to allow a move of the Oakland A’s is on shaky legal ground, according to some legal experts.
Two days ago San Jose filed suit in federal court alleging that MLB is interfering with the city coming to an agreement with the A’s for a new ballpark. This interference is costing the city millions in lost revenue, and the city is asking the court to lift MLB’s antitrust exemption in order to allow a move of the A’s.
While lots of folks — especially armchair Internet lawyers — make a lot of noise about MLB’s antitrust exemption being a dinosaur, the fact is that neither Congress nor the courts have taken any sort of substantial action to strike it down since 1972, and a run at the antitrust exemption in 1998 caused some small changes to it by Congress. So any argument you see that is dependent on the antitrust exemption bring outdated is automatically questionable: in the law precedent is a hard burden to overcome, especially when Congress has pointedly refused to address the issue.
The San Jose brief is heavily dependent on the argument that MLB is interfering with the ability of the city to come to an agreement with the A’s, Right now there is no agreement: there’s no land sale (San Jose has offered only an option to sell land to Lew Wolff and crew), and therefore no contract. MLB, the lawyers argue, is impacting San Jose’s “prospective economic advantage.”
That’s a pretty wide claim, To get to that point, you need to assume that San Jose has the right to prospective economic advantage (a special right that trumps Oakland’s interests), and that MLB exhibited “wrongful conduct” in denying the move. But neither condition is true in this case. I don’t have the right to demand my property would be enhanced with a McDonald’s, so therefore the local zoning laws are denying me prospective economic advantage. McDonald’s nor my local municipality are exhibiting wrongful conduct in not allowing me to open a drive-through in my back yard. And I don’t have the right to prevail in a lawsuit against McDonald’s because the fast-food giant refused me a franchise for my backyard, thus denying me prospective economic advantage. Now, one could argue the Oakland A’s do have a right to prospective economic advantage as a participant in MLB. This case would have been a lot stronger if the A’s brought the lawsuit — like Al Davis did, when the courts struck down NFL control of franchise moves, allowing the Oakland Raiders to move to Los Angeles — but the A’s ownership is prohibited by MLB rules to sue the commissioner and the game. This could also be used to argue that the Giants and the A’s are partners under the MLB rubric, which does indeed give the Giants a say in relocation efforts and Selig the right to prevent a move for the good of the game.
Indeed, this may be the strongest reason to keep the antitrust exemption in place: MLB has an interest in maintaining territorial rules in order to strengthen the entire industry. (The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.) From Forbes:
“The league could certainly maintain a degree of control of its franchises, as does the NFL and other leagues,” says Joseph Bauer, a professor of law at the University of Notre Dame, who studies sports labor issues. “Removing the exemption doesn’t make it unlawful if it has merit.” Merit would conceivably include optimizing business by spreading things out in a way that makes sense.
“The league has a legitimate interest in where its franchises are located,” says Matthew Mitten, Director of the National Sports Law Institute at Marquette University. “That includes being geographically disbursed for television and for sponsors.”
In any case, there are many in baseball who don’t see this as a serious legal argument, but a publc-relations move designed to bring some pressure on MLB to act in the A’s request to move. Some media outlets, such as ESPN, say this is a perfect chance for the Supreme Court to weigh in on the issue, but it’s hard to see the overwhelmingly pro-business Roberts Court striking down the antitrust exemption so the city of San Jose can enjoy economic benefits. MLB certainly has no problem with lawyering up, however, and MLB officials can be amazingly impervious to public opinion.
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