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Cheaper sports on the way thanks to NHL “blackout” settlement, MLB could follow

NHL: DEC 16 Wild at BlackhawksNHL: DEC 16 Wild at Blackhawks
Action during a game between the Minnesota Wild and the Chicago Blackhawks.Photograph by Robin Alam — AP

Here’s a small bit of good news for sports fans: The price of online hockey games will likely drop next year after the NHL and broadcasters settled a class action case over “blackout” rules intended to protect local TV monopolies. Under a proposed settlement, the league will begin selling single-team packages for $105 a season rather than forcing fans to buy a $159 bundle that includes teams they don’t care about.

The upshot is that fans who root for an out-of-town team (like a Bruins fan who lives in New York) will get an option to save money – but the settlement, despite a judge’s ruling that blackouts are likely illegal, will not help fans (like a Rangers fan in New York) who want to watch the local team online.

If you’re unfamiliar, the hockey settlement, filed Thursday in federal court, came after fans sued the NHL and Major League Baseball in 2012, claiming that the way the leagues sold games amounted to an antitrust violation. The new deal, however, only covers hockey; the baseball-related lawsuit is ongoing, though the NHL arrangement could prove a template since the two cases have very similar facts.

Unfortunately, the NHL deal doesn’t resolve the issue that really bugs sports fans: the “blackout” rules that mean online subscribers to NHL’s Game Center Live or MLB TV can’t see the local teams. That issue was what gave rise to the lawsuits in the first place, as fans sued both the leagues and TV distributors Comcast (CMCSA)and DirectTV(DTV), saying the blackout rules created an illegal monopoly.

For fans, the proposed NHL deal may be especially frustrating since U.S. District Judge Shira Scheindlin last month agreed that the monopoly blackout arrangement did appear to be an antitrust violation. But the judge also said fans could not look to recover money, but could only seek an order putting a stop to the blackouts.

That ruling is likely why lawyers for the fans declined to pursue the case to its conclusion, and instead to accept a settlement based on the price cut. All of the parties – including the NHL and the broadcasters – urged the judge to approve the deal before the start of the 2015-1016 hockey season.

Team owners and broadcasters are likely to keep a wary eye on what happens next. If other courts agree that the blackouts are an antitrust violation, that would pose a major threat to the business model of leagues like the MLB and NHL, which is based on selling monopoly game rights at top dollars to local TV networks.

You can read the settlement for yourself below:

NHL Settlement