Revoking parts of baseball's antitrust exemption could backfire on small markets

Monday, December 3rd 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

WASHINGTON (AP) _ The effort in Congress to keep major league baseball from cutting teams could lead to teams moving, something that hasn't happened in three decades.

While other major professional sports have seen teams move from city to city, baseball's antitrust exemption, which bars lawsuits by teams seeking to relocate, has helped keep teams from roaming.

A measure introduced by Sens. Paul Wellstone and Mark Dayton, both D-Minn., and Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., would make the elimination and relocation of teams subject to antitrust challenges.

Baseball owners voted Nov. 6 to dissolve two major league franchises. The owners didn't identify the teams, but the Montreal Expos and Minnesota Twins are thought to be the leading candidates.

The bill would allow an injured party _ a government entity, a stadium authority, a baseball player _ to sue for antitrust violations. Other parts of the baseball's antitrust exemption would remain intact, such as minor league baseball, marketing, sales and intellectual property rights.

The bill is supported by the entire Minnesota congressional delegation, even though it could allow the Twins to sue baseball so they could move from Minneapolis, where voters have declined to fund a new stadium.

The last major league franchise to move was the Washington Senators, who became the Texas Rangers after the 1971 season.

Steve Smith, a political science professor at Washington University in St. Louis, said the antitrust exemption has protected small markets from losing teams.

``Teams like the Twins or the Kansas City Royals, who might have been better off in other markets, have not been able to give that any serious consideration,'' said Smith, who organized a conference on the economics of baseball earlier this year.

A hearing on the bill is scheduled for Thursday before the House Judiciary Committee.

Major league baseball strongly opposes the measure. Spokesman Rich Levin said the sport has made franchise stability a cornerstone. ``Obviously, without the antitrust exemption, that policy would be jeopardized,'' he said.

Sen. Kit Bond, R-Mo., said passage of the baseball bill would lead to chaos. ``You'd have people buying teams and moving them around,'' he said.

The National Football League doesn't have a similar antitrust exemption. When the league tried to block the Oakland Raiders from moving to Los Angeles, it lost an antitrust lawsuit to owner Al Davis in 1983. Since then, six NFL teams have moved _ including the Raiders back to Oakland _ and the league has been powerless to stop them.

``If we had this blanket antitrust exemption that baseball had, then those decisions would not be challenged under the antitrust laws,'' NFL spokesman Gary Aiello said.

Other major sports also have seen a flurry of team relocations. Nine National Hockey League teams have moved since 1976, while the National Basketball Association has had seven relocations in the last 30 years, including one this year when the Vancouver Grizzlies moved to Memphis.

Twice in the 1990s, lawmakers threatened to revoke baseball's antitrust exemption because the owners prevented teams from moving _ in 1992 when the San Francisco Giants attempted to move to St. Petersburg, Fla., and in 1995 when the Houston Astros explored a move to Northern Virginia.

Gary Roberts, who runs the sports law program at Tulane Law School in New Orleans, said Minnesota fans would be better served if the latest bill applied only to contraction.

``Why they have added relocation to that, I don't know,'' he said. ``It certainly doesn't help a team in a small market like Minnesota to add relocation to that bill.''

Marge Baker, a senior aide to Wellstone, said baseball's decision to eliminate two teams shows small-market cities can't depend on the league to protect them.

``We're better off trusting antitrust laws and the courts than major league baseball owners,'' she said.