By: Rafael Andino
The National Football League (“NFL”) will face an antitrust class action lawsuit over the structure of its “Sunday Ticket” package through DirecTV, which forces customers to choose between buying either every out-of-market football game or none at all. The Sunday Ticket customers leading the lawsuit seek to dismantle the licensing arrangements responsible for DirecTV’s Sunday Ticket Package. NFL fans, the plaintiffs in this case, assert that this package and the NFL’s agreement with its teams to pool its television rights violates sections one and two of the Sherman Act. Section one of the Sherman Act declares that “every contract, combination in the form of trusts or otherwise, or conspiracy, in restraint of trade or commerce among several States, or with foreign nations, is declared to be illegal.” Moreover, section two of the Sherman prohibits monopolization, attempts to monopolize, and conspiracies to monopolize “any part of trade or commerce among the several States or with foreign nations.”
Plaintiffs claim that the issue with NFL Sunday Ticket and, more broadly, bundled deals of television rights with major channels and distributors precludes individual NFL teams from competing with one another to broadcast their games to out-of-market fans. Furthermore, plaintiffs contend that the NFL’s prohibition of teams competing with each other to stream their games in different markets financially harms fans because it eliminates competition in the market for live telecasts. Judge Gutierrez of the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California summarized the Plantiffs’ argument as, “[F]ans who want to watch out-of-market games must choose either Sunday Ticket or nothing — they cannot, for example, purchase out-of-market games individually or by team.”
Judge Gutierrez certified two separate classes — residential and commercial Sunday Ticket subscribers. Plaintiffs state that the residential class includes at least 2.4 million members who bought the Sunday Ticket package after June 17, 2011, while the commercial class includes at least 48,000 members — encompassing sports bars and pubs. This class action would aggregate costs of nearly $6 billion in damages.According to Judge Gutierrez, the licensing agreements represent “direct, class-wide evidence of an antitrust violation.” Additionally, “if the contracts match up to the allegations, then there will be a violation applicable to the class[es].”
Although the NFL has recently changed with regard to the streaming rights of the Sunday Ticket package, not much will change regarding the parties to this suit. In December 2022, Google signed a multiyear contract with the NFL for the exclusive stream rights to the Sunday Ticket package of games in the United States via YouTube. According to a report from the Wall Street Journal, YouTube will pay the NFL an average price of about $2 billion a year for the NFL Sunday Ticket package. Judge Gutierrez stated that despite the “new home for Sunday Ticket, the entire class will likely continue to be subjected to defendants’ anticompetitive restraints on telecasts.” The trial will begin in February 2024.
A judgment favoring the plaintiffs in this long-awaited case would completely change the world of television and licensing contracts. Judge Gutierrez stated that the Plaintiffs contended that “absent the anticompetitive agreements, the telecasts solely available on Sunday Ticket would be available through other means, which would result in a greater number of telecasts of NFL games that would be more accessible to more viewers at a lower price.” Additionally, the NFL is disadvantaged by Supreme Court precedents. For example, in 1984, the Supreme Court held that the NCAA violated antitrust laws in a case somewhat similar to the matter at hand. In NCAA v. Board of Regents of the University of Oklahoma, the Supreme Court found that the NCAA violated antitrust law when it restricted the broadcasting of games for slightly different reasons than those in this case. Justice John Paul Stevens concluded that the restraint by the NCAA hindered competition among schools in the broadcasting space. Overall, the potential outcome of litigation in the NFL’s antitrust case could shift how American football fans would experience the sport in the future altogether.
Ultimately, the National Football League is a business. The impact of having to pay millions of dollars to millions of customers and fans would take a significant toll on the profitability of the NFL. This financial hit could potentially be justified through a significant hike in the cost of sporting-related matters (TV viewership prices, market accessibility for NFL games, options for teams to move to premium TV channels for viewership). This trial, which the NFL has tried to fend off for years, has the potential to change the landscape of sports licensing and streaming contracts for years to come.
 In re Nat’l Football League’s Sunday Ticket Antitrust Litig, No. 2:15-ml-02668 (C.D. Cal. Feb. 7, 2023).
 Mike Leonard, NFL Sunday Ticket Case Certified as Antitrust Class Action (1), Bloomberg L., https://www.bloomberglaw.com/bloomberglawnews/antitrust/XDBODMIK000000?bna_news_filter=antitrust#jcite (last updated Feb. 9, 2023, 12:00 PM).
 Maya Rustom, The New Era of NFL Antitrust Law, the Sunday Ticket Package: Was the Ninth Circuit Ruling a Touchdown or a Penalty?, 48 Pepp. L. Rev. 537 (2021).
 15 U.S.C. § 1.
 See 15 U.S.C. § 2.
 See Michael McCann, Why DirecTV’s Sunday Ticket May Be Illegal Under Antitrust Law, Sports Illustrated (Aug. 14, 2019), https://www.si.com/nfl/2019/08/14/nfl-sunday-ticket-directv-antitrust-violation-lawsuit.
 See Michael McCann, Youtube TV Can’t Save NFL From Sunday Ticket Class Action Suit, Sportico (Feb. 9, 2023, 8:00 AM), https://www.sportico.com/law/analysis/2023/nfl-sunday-ticket-antitrust-lawsuit-class-action-1234709220/.
 Leonard, supra note 2.
 Michael McCann, NFL Warns Sunday Ticket Litig. Could Raise TV Viewers’ Cost, Yahoo Sports (Nov. 8, 2022), https://sports.yahoo.com/nfl-warns-sunday-ticket-litigation-161616875.html?fr=sychp_catchall.
 See NFL’s Sunday Ticket Faces Class Action, Justia Legal News (Feb. 9, 2023), https://news.justia.com/nfls-sunday-ticket-faces-class-action/.
 Leonard, supra note 2.
 Mike Scarella, NFL must face class action lawsuit over ‘Sunday Ticket’ package, Reuters (Feb. 8, 2023, 9:13 PM), https://www.reuters.com/legal/nfl-must-face-class-action-lawsuit-over-sunday-ticket-prices-2023-02-08/.
 Helen Coster, Youtube, NFL strike deal to stream Sunday Ticket package of games, Reuters (Dec. 22, 2022, 5:19 PM), https://www.reuters.com/lifestyle/sports/youtube-nfl-strike-deal-stream-sunday-ticket-package-games-2022-12-22/.
 Scarella, supra note 14.
 McCann, supra note 9.
 McCann, supra note 7.
 McCann, supra note 10.