(REAL TIMES MEDIA)—Football is the most popular and profitable sport played in the United States. While hockey is almost forgotten, NASCAR stays with a niche audience, baseball struggles with scandal and about eight NBA teams are treading water financially and the NFL keeps raking in the billions. Even in a recession attendance remains high, profits are high and the Super Bowl remains an unofficial holiday even for non-sports fans. With all that going for them, it makes you wonder why the NFL is looking for a handout from the Supreme Court of the United States.
Last week the Supreme Court heard opening arguments for American Needle vs. the NFL a case that has huge ramifications for NFL profits, NFL related businesses and the prices that fans pay. For years there were several companies that made NFL hats, T-shirts and jerseys, and they sometimes cut deals with the NFL as a whole and sometimes made individual deals with popular franchises. In the 1990s you could buy a Cowboys’ jersey from Adidas, a John Elway hat from Champion or a Donovan McNabb T-shirt from Nike. But all of that came to an end in 2002 when the NFL signed a 10-year exclusive clothing contract with Reebok, cutting everyone else out of the NFL apparel business until 2012. American Needle, one of the former apparel makers is suing the NFL, accusing them of violating Sherman Anti-Trust laws and asking the Supreme Court to stop the monopolistic practices of “America’s game.”
The whole case that is before Obama’s new Supreme Court goes to the core of what we know and love about sports, and America for that matter. Is the United States, a collection of 50 states under one constitution, or one large nation with 50 units? Your answer to that question says a lot about your politics and lies at the heart of this case. American Needle argues that the league is a collection of 32 teams and thus different apparel companies should have the right to negotiate with any franchise. The NFL setting up an exclusive contract for all 32 franchises with one company, they argue, unfairly cuts out competition. The league argues that the NFL is one big entity which merely has 32 moving parts, thus has the right to set up exclusive deals no matter the impact on the market.
The Supreme Court, which has been incredibly friendly towards business during the last eight years under Bush should focus long and hard on this case since the consequences are far reaching. We’ve already seen what happens when the NFL gets the chance to set up exclusive contracts with one group to the exclusion of others. Ever wonder why grown men line up for hours before midnight to rush into Wal-Mart and spend almost $80 on the newest John Madden NFL game? Because there are no other NFL games allowed on any video game system. After the NFL signed an exclusive content agreement with Electronic Arts (common known as EA Sports) in 2004 they became the only video game company in the world with the right to make games with NFL players and logos. There were at least half a dozen NFL games on the market before 2002, now there is only one, not because it’s the best game or the most popular but because the NFL exercised monopoly power and cut every other company out of the market. Today, whether you have an Xbox, Wii, Playstation or a home computer, if you want to buy a football video game you have to pay whatever price EA sports and the NFL comes up with.
If the court grants the NFL the right to operate as one entity why would the gouging stop at video games and jerseys? What if the NFL decides to lower player health benefits or salaries across the board and agents can’t negotiate between teams? What if the league decides that all NFL stadiums must serve Pepsi products and individual franchises can’t negotiate deals? These may seem like farfetched ideas today but tell that to the video game companies and clothiers that have been put out business by what the league has already done.
The NFL promotes itself by saying that on “Any given Sunday” any team that works hard can compete and win. Hopefully the Supreme Court takes this to heart, rules against the league and restores free and open competition in sports merchandising again. Besides, shouldn’t open and fair competition be what “America’s game” is all about?
(Dr. Jason Johnson is an associate professor at Hiram College in Ohio.)