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Jury orders NFL to pay $4.7 billion in “Sunday Ticket” antitrust case

(Stock image via Pixabay, Graphic by The Desk)
(Stock image via Pixabay, Graphic by The Desk)

A federal jury has ordered the National Football League to pay $4.7 billion in restitution after siding against the league in an antitrust case brought by current and former DirecTV subscribers who paid for the NFL Sunday Ticket package.

The case was brought by football fans who complained that the NFL’s arrangement with DirecTV to be the exclusive provider of the Sunday Ticket artificially increased the price they paid for the package. NFL Sunday Ticket offers access to Sunday afternoon and morning games aired on CBS and Fox stations beyond a subscriber’s home area.

The class-action lawsuit covers around 2.4 million residential customers and 48,000 DirecTV for Business subscribers who paid for the NFL Sunday Ticket package at any point between 2011 and 222. DirecTV is not a party to the case. The package moved to YouTube last year, though DirecTV for Business still offers NFL Sunday Ticket to hotels, restaurants and other enterprise subscribers.

In a statement, a spokesperson for the NFL said they intend to appeal the verdict, saying they were “disappointed” by the jury’s decision and that the league still believes it broke no laws.

“We continue to believe that our media distribution strategy, which features all NFL games broadcast on free over-the-air television in the markets of the participating teams and national distribution of our most popular games, supplemented by many additional choices including RedZone, Sunday Ticket and NFL Plus, is by far the most fan friendly distribution model in all of sports and entertainment,” the NFL spokesperson said.

“We will certainly contest this decision as we believe that the class action claims in this case are baseless and without merit,” the spokesperson continued. “We thank the jury for their time and service and for the guidance and oversight from Judge Gutierrez throughout the trial.”

Gutierrez has scheduled a hearing for post-trial motions on July 31, at which point attorneys representing the NFL are expected to ask the judge to set aside the verdict. The restitution amount is not final, and could be lowered by Gutierrez between now and then.

Plaintiffs in the case said the NFL broke consumer antitrust laws by distributing their NFL Sunday Ticket package exclusively through DirecTV and not making it available to regional cable providers or Dish Network, which may have increased competition and reduced the cost of the package.

At its peak, DirecTV charged between $200 and $300 per season for NFL Sunday Ticket, though it typically offered the package at a reduced price or for free to new customers for at least one football season.

The NFL’s arrangement with DirecTV began in the early 1990s, when the league was transmitting games over C-Band satellite. That early method allowed hotels, bars and restaurants with large satellite dishes to publicly screen the games, but afforded the NFL no easy way to charge for those games.

A partnership with DirecTV smoothed things over by allowing the NFL to distribute the package across all 50 states and reach football fans who prefer to watch games in their homes. It also allowed the NFL to charge a subscription fee to access the games, with DirecTV handling all payments associated with the service.

NFL officials and attorneys representing the league say the DirecTV deal wasn’t meant to cut other pay TV providers out, but was viewed as the best possible option to get the NFL Sunday Ticket package in as many homes and business as possible. They noted that cable TV providers historically operated on a regional basis, and it was easier to distribute the package via satellite rather than forge individual agreements with hundreds of land-based TV providers.

Officials acknowledged that consumers began shifting away from cable and satellite TV for streaming services about a decade ago, but said streaming platforms were not reliable enough to transmit NFL games on a weekly basis until recently.

Attorneys representing the NFL also pointed to an exemption in antitrust law that allowed the NFL to make its various deals with broadcasters like ABC, CBS, Fox and NBC. Plaintiffs who brought the lawsuit argued the exemption, which was passed by Congress in the 1960s, applied only to broadcast television and not football packages that are sold over cable and satellite.

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About the Author:

Matthew Keys

Matthew Keys is a nationally-recognized, award-winning journalist who has covered the business of media, technology, radio and television for more than 11 years. He is the publisher of The Desk and contributes to Know Techie, Digital Content Next and StreamTV Insider. He previously worked for Thomson Reuters, the Walt Disney Company, McNaughton Newspapers and Tribune Broadcasting.