The A’s relocation and MLB’s antitrust exemption don’t fit together

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Remember the summer of 2022, when MLB had to turn its attention away from the lockout and the then-finalized collective bargaining, and toward Congress, which was questioning the league about its antitrust exemption? Remember, too, that one of commissioner Rob Manfred’s defenses of the antitrust exemption — which was under scrutiny in no small part due to the mistreatment and exploitation of minor-league players — was that its central purpose was to keep teams from relocating, taking baseball away from the communities that had it in the process?

The receipts are out there, so let’s start going through them. Here’s Manfred speaking with Bill Shaikin at The Los Angeles Times, from July 15:

I met with MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred the other day, and I asked him to explain the issue to the common fan: What is this exemption, and why do you need it?

“It’s really interesting,” Manfred said. “The principal utility of the exemption is it allows us to be more aggressive than other leagues in terms of preventing franchise relocation. It is a fan-friendly doctrine in the law.”

He is right about that. In the last half-century, one MLB team has moved, and even that move came with an asterisk: When the Expos moved from Montreal to Washington, MLB owned the team.

In that same half-century, the Raiders alone moved from Oakland to Los Angeles, back to Oakland, and then to Las Vegas. When the NFL tried to stop the Raiders, the courts sided with the Raiders, who were acting in what they believed were the best interests of their business.

When the Oakland Athletics tried to move to San Jose, acting in what they believed were the best interests of their business, the courts deferred to MLB, citing the exemption. The San Francisco Giants had the league’s territorial rights to San Jose, and that was that.

It turns out that Manfred wasn’t just lying about the compensation of minor leaguers in his letter to Congress, but also about the exemption’s role in keeping clubs from packing their bags and leaving town. Yes, the exemption has been cited by the courts in the past, and the NFL’s lack of one let the Raiders skip town despite the league’s protest, but that doesn’t mean that’s its main purpose. And you can also argue that MLB was happy to let the courts cite the exemption in the previous case of the A’s and their attempt to move to San Jose, mostly because it helped keep the Giants in a position of power there, given their territorial rights, and let MLB say, “hey, nothing we can do about it” instead of being forced to act out against one of their franchises in favor of another. With the A’s trying to move to Vegas, though, MLB is pleased to not just let them do what they want, but to help them in the move: the “fan-friendly doctrine” is just some convenient spin to make the exemption seem like a good thing, and nothing more.

Representative Barbara Lee from California hasn’t forgotten what Manfred said, and, as the House member representing the East Bay, has something to say on the matter with the A’s trying to leave.

Lee wrote, in a letter to Manfred, that:

In a July 2022 letter to the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee, you volunteered that, “The antitrust exemption helps ensure that MLB clubs maintain deep and enduring relationships with their fan bases, whereas franchises in other major professional sports regularly relocate from one market to another.” That same month, you are quoted as saying, “The principal utility of the exemption is it allows us to be more aggressive than other leagues in terms of preventing franchise relocation. It is a fan-friendly doctrine in the law.” Yet in this case, Major League Baseball is actively seeking to subsidize the relocation of the Oakland A’s through your public offer to waive MLB’s standard relocation fee and actively take crucial revenue, and a cultural staple, from the East Bay.

MLB’s continued active encouragement of the A’s abandonment of Oakland and the East Bay runs counter the rationale supporting MLB’s century-old exemption from federal anti-trust law.

Now, Manfred is sure to respond with something resembling, “well, this is a special circumstance, you could say that the city of Oakland has abandoned the A’s first, the A’s need to play in a market that will support them and provide local revenues to them so they can remain competitive and not have a win streak be analyzed through the lens of whether it’ll help them escape being the literal worst baseball team in history or just one of the really bad ones.” But it’s important to remember, too, that MLB does not want to wake up the sleeping giant that is antitrust discourse. I wouldn’t be shocked — maybe surprised, but not shocked — if MLB takes a step back and says they’ll no longer waive the relocation fee, now that someone in a position of power to take away the antitrust exemption has pointed out the issues with it. They do not want Congress thinking about the antitrust exemption at all, because Congress is the branch of the federal government that’s a threat, even if just a hypothetical one, to remove the exemption.

The Supreme Court won’t, due to the fact their decisions have retroactivity, meaning, removing MLB’s antitrust exemption that way would open the league up to countless lawsuits against a century of behavior that was legally permitted due to the exemption. Congress, though, can simply remove it and say, “now if you do that in the future, you don’t have an exemption so you’ll suffer the consequences,” and that’ll be that. MLB does not want that to happen: it’s part of why I believe they played ball as cleanly and quietly as they did with the formation of the minor leaguers’ union, why they voluntarily recognized them as quickly as possible, why they didn’t go to war in the court of public opinion with the players like they did with their MLB cousins not that long before and for years after. The exemption was at stake, and giving the Senate Judiciary Committee and Congress in general any further reason to suspect that the exemption was allowing them to abuse players, cities, whatever, was not an option.

Now, this isn’t to say that MLB is suddenly going to reverse course and stop supporting the A’s in the move to Vegas. As I said, I believe the next course of action will be to justify the league’s support and try to explain why this isn’t actually “counter the rationale” of the exemption, and then maybe to reinstate the relocation fee, while telling A’s owner John Fisher the same thing the league said to the club when the courts blocked the San Jose move (“hey, that’s just the law, don’t blame us). A new wrinkle has been introduced, however, and it’ll be worth keeping an eye on it to see if it spreads elsewhere while MLB tries to smooth it out.

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