Distribution, Competition, and Antitrust / Intellectual Property (IP) Law

Basketball, Surreptitious Recordings, and Antitrust

Donald Sterling — yes, that Donald Sterling — filed an antitrust lawsuit a few days ago against the National Basketball Association.  You can download a copy here: Sterling Antitrust Complaint.

It’s not clear if the complaint has now been mooted — Mr. Sterling apparently filed it after reaching an agreement to sell the Los Angeles Clippers to Steve Ballmer only because the NBA allegedly refused to confirm that it was cancelling the June 3, 2014 owners’ meeting(*) regarding a forced sale of the franchise.

The complaint asserts causes of action for breach of contract and the like.  The gist of the single antitrust claim is that there is a market for ownership of NBA franchises and that a collective decision to force a sale of the Los Angeles Clippers would injure not only Mr. Sterling but also competition in the market.  It would “mak[e] the relevant market unresponsive to consumer preference and to the operation of the free market.”

The complaint seeks at least $1 billion in damages.

The issue raised is an interesting one: can a sports league collectively control its membership?  If the answer is “no,” how far does the principle extend?  Is there a “market” for golf club memberships which cannot be constrained by collective action to vote out a club member for boorish behavior?  What about membership in non-profit associations generally?  If you think these latter restraints are OK, is the limiting principle found in the relevant market definition (i.e., being banned from one golf club out of dozens or hundreds in a metropolitan area isn’t competitively significant)– or somewhere else?

(*) Technically, a meeting of the NBA Board of Governors.

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