Major League Baseball is suing for a piece of the fantasy baseball pie.
The dispute is between a company in St. Louis that operates fantasy sports leagues over the Internet and the Internet arm of Major League Baseball, which says that anyone using players’ names and performance statistics to operate a fantasy league commercially must purchase a license. The St. Louis company counters that it does not need a license because the players are public figures whose statistics are in the public domain.
According to the Fantasy Sports Trade Association, more than 15 million people spend about $1.5 billion annually to play fantasy sports, virtually all of them using an outside service to keep track of rosters, players’ statistics, trades and more. Most participate through Web sites run by CBS SportsLine, Yahoo and ESPN, which have paid Major League Baseball Advanced Media approximately $2 million apiece this year for licenses to display players’ names and photographs, team logos and varying add-ons like video highlight clips.
The St. Louis company, CBC Distribution and Marketing Inc., operates through the Web site CDMsports.com. It runs its customers’ leagues without player photographs (which are controlled by players in nonjournalistic commerce) or team logos (which are trademarks owned by the major league clubs). Like those of many smaller operators, the St. Louis company’s games present only players’ names and seasonal statistics, which the company says are newsworthy facts whose publication is protected by the First Amendment. “We’re disseminating information to the public about baseball players no different than what a newspaper does,” said Rudy Telscher, a lawyer representing CBC. “The American populace, at least a significant portion of it, has a fascination with baseball, they have a fascination with following the statistics, and I think the popularity of fantasy sports is borne right out of that passion for tracking the game and the statistics.”
Major League Baseball Advanced Media, which purchased the players’ Internet and wireless rights from the players union in January 2005 for $50 million over five years, contends that the players’ identities are being exploited in a business venture distinct from conventional journalism. “What a company like CBC is selling is not nearly a repackaging of statistics,” said Lee Goldsmith, a lawyer for Major League Baseball Advanced Media. “They’re selling and they’re marketing the ability to buy, sell, draft and cut Derek Jeter, Alex Rodriguez, Albert Pujols. And part and parcel of the reason that people are willing to pay for that ability is the persona of Jeter, of Rodriguez, of Pujols.”
While MLB has a legitimate legal case here, this is just another instance of sheer stupidity on the part of the league in managing fan relations. Fantasy sports, and fantasy baseball in particular, contribute to the popularity of the sport. Baseball, in particular, needs all the help it can get in this regard. Not only is the plague of steroids undermining the integrity of the numbers that make the game connect with a past in a way no other sport can, but the slow play over a 162 game regular season is a hard sell in a broadband world.
My own interest in the game has diminished in the last couple of years, after having moved to the D.C. area from the Deep South. Part of that is a loss of local connection to the team I follow, the Atlanta Braves. Partly, too, married life is not conducive to watching 162 games. Mostly, though, I’ve lost interest because the idiots at MLB decided to treat TBS as a national network whereas the Yankees’ and Mets’ networks are treated as local. The result is that the Braves’ ownership moved most of the games to regional networks unavailable to me. The SuperStation made the Braves a national team; MLB made them local again.
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