Courtesy of AP
Wednesday, June 21, 2023 | 2 a.m.
As the relocation of the Oakland Athletics to Las Vegas appears imminent, federal lawmakers are looking to reconsider Major League Baseball’s antitrust exemption status that has allowed the league to operate as a legal monopoly for more than a century.
Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Calif., whose district encompasses Oakland, introduced the so-called Moneyball Act last week that calls for the owner of a relocating professional baseball club to compensate the local communities the team leaves.
If a ballclub refuses to do so, Congress would have the power to subject MLB to the antitrust laws it’s been immune to since 1922 when the Supreme Court unanimously ruled those regulations wouldn’t apply to MLB because it wasn’t interstate commerce.
Gov. Joe Lombardo last week signed into law a $380 million public financing package to aid in the development of a $1.5 billion stadium, which is scheduled to open in 2028 for the Athletics to play in. The package includes $180 million in transferable tax credits and $120 million in bonds from Clark County.
“The city (of Oakland) has been negotiating in good faith,” Lee told the Sun last week. “They (MLB) need to understand that if they’re going to leave, they’re going to have to invest in the community that has been investing in them all these years. … Incentivizing a team by waiving relocation fees is something that should not happen.”
The offices of Nevada U.S. Reps. Dina Titus, Susie Lee and Steven Horsford — all Democrats whose districts either include or are near the proposed $1.5 billion ballpark development off the intersection of Las Vegas Boulevard and Tropicana Avenue — declined to comment.
The introduction of the Moneyball Act came roughly a week after Barbara Lee sent a letter to MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred voicing frustration over the A’s and league’s handling of negotiations with local agencies in Oakland. The A’s for years had been working closely with officials there on a $12 billion development that included a waterfront stadium off the San Francisco Bay — though those negotiations effectively ended in January after the city was denied a $183 million federal grant for the project.
Manfred at a news conference following an owners meeting last week said he felt sorry for the fans in Oakland and didn’t “like this outcome.”
He continued, “It has always been baseball’s policy and preference to stay put. And I think that always colors any conversation about relocation. Having said that, I think that the owners as a whole understand that there has been a multiyear and approaching a decade effort where for the vast majority of the time, the sole focus was Oakland.”
Barbara Lee said the league’s decision to waive a relocation fee for the A’s serves as a direct incentive for the team to change cities, and weakens the argument baseball has made in the past that its antitrust exemption should remain intact because it keeps franchises from frequently changing locations.
But if a ballclub is “deliberately” lured into leaving its home city and bringing that revenue elsewhere, cities where a team used to be headquartered should be fairly compensated to make up for lost revenue, jobs and commerce, Barbara Lee said.
As written, the bill would require a relocating team to pay all state, local and tribal tax revenue levied in the 10 years prior to relocation. In the case of the A’s, Barbara Lee’s office has not estimated how much the team would owe Oakland or Alameda County.
“Oakland deserves some kind of form of compensation and a revenue source because they (the A’s) are leaving the community,” Barbara Lee said. “And MLB should be held responsible for this.”
Ed Edmonds, a law professor at the University of Notre Dame who specializes in antitrust and labor issues involving baseball, said as written, the bill could also be interpreted to affect minor leagues seeking relocation.
“They talk about taking away baseball’s antitrust exemption, but they specifically talk about organized professional baseball, which typically refers to Major League Baseball and all the minor league baseball teams that are with them in that system,” Edmonds said. “Major League Baseball has had fewer relocations than other professional sports in recent memory. Minor league teams move quite a bit.”
Manfred on Thursday said league owners have begun the relocation approval process for the A’s, making them the second team in the past 50 years to move to a new city. The last was the Montreal Expos, who completed the move to become the Washington Nationals in 2005. Calls to Manfred’s office from the Sun for this story weren’t returned.
In 1922, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of Major League Baseball in the case of Federal Baseball Club v. National League, effectively exempting MLB from the Sherman Act, according to a 2022 article from the Society for American Baseball Research. MLB’s exemption was reinforced by the 1953 high court case Toolson v. New York Yankees and a 1972 ruling in Flood v. Kuhn, which Edmonds said was less impactful but still noteworthy.
“The pressure really, from those two Supreme Court decisions has been thrown on Congress,” Edmonds said, referring to the Federal Baseball Club and Toolson cases.
Congress in 1998 passed the Curt Flood Act, which eliminated a portion of MLB’s antitrust exemption when it came to labor negotiations with players, but the law had little bearing on league operations, as decades of breakthroughs from the MLB players’ union helped usher in mechanisms like free agency and salary arbitration.
“So there’s been lots of legislation over the years,” trying to reign in baseball, Edmonds said. “You would have thought that if there was an opportunity for Congress to really get interested in this from a bipartisan standpoint, it would be because there are so many more congressional districts and states with senators that have minor league baseball teams than have major league baseball teams. But it really has not gone far.”
A group of Republicans in the U.S. Senate seem to agree.
A bill proposed Friday by Sens. Mike Lee of Utah, Marco Rubio of Florida, Ted Cruz of Texas and Josh Hawley of Missouri would allow for “greater accountability” in promoting fair competition and providing fair opportunities for competing leagues.
In a statement, they said they were driven to introduce the bill after the Los Angeles Dodgers honored a satirical LGBTQ+ group called the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence at their annual Pride Night game last week. The group — mostly men who dress flamboyantly as nuns — are active in protests and charitable programs.
The decision to honor the group brought criticism from faith communities, who said the members mocked the Catholic faith.
The senators, in announcing the bill, also mentioned baseball relocating its all-star game in 2021 from Atlanta to Denver in protest of Georgia passing restrictive voting laws.
“The time has come to strike out the outdated and unequal treatment that has long benefited the MLB,” the senators said in a joint statement. “Just as teams fiercely compete on the diamond, every sports league should operate under the same antitrust regulations. Our bill will level the playing field, removing the century-old exemption that has given the MLB an unfair advantage.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.