Fan disdain likely not enough for a Dodgers lawsuit against AT&T, experts say

The Los Angeles Dodgers have garnered plenty of ill will among fans since striking an $8-billion deal with Time Warner Cable to create a television channel — one that many of the team’s supporters have been unable to watch.

That Dodgers-owned channel, SportsNet LA, debuted in 2014, but Time Warner Cable has failed to  persuade other pay-TV providers to distribute the network. Some fans have said that the inability to watch the team play has sapped their interest in it.

"They alienated a lot of people who grew up watching and listening to the team," said longtime Dodgers fan Mark Yuan, an Anaheim resident. "It's very much a part of our culture in Los Angeles."

Now, much to the relief of fans like Yuan, things could finally be changing. On Wednesday, the U.S. Department of Justice filed a lawsuit that alleges DirecTV colluded with other pay-TV companies to block the Dodgers channel from being carried by more providers.

The case was filed against AT&T, which has owned DirecTV since 2015, and could hasten the end to the long-running carriage dispute.

It would also seem to provide considerable ammunition to Dodgers owner Guggenheim Baseball Management for a possible lawsuit against AT&T.

But antitrust law experts said the team probably couldn’t make a legal argument that its finances were directly affected by fans’ unhappiness over not being able to watch games.

“The Dodgers were not economically damaged directly by this antitrust violation because they sold the rights to Time Warner [Cable]” and have been getting paid as a result of the broadcasting contract, said Stephen Ross, professor of law at Penn State University.

The Dodgers may have suffered indirect damage, because many fans took out their ire on the team’s owners. That might have contributed to fewer sales of merchandise, for example. But if the team were to mount a legal case, it would have to prove that fans' inability to watch games directly translated to lost business opportunities, Ross said.

The team has not indicated what its strategy will be — beyond lobbying for wide carriage of the channel. “We remain hopeful that we can get SportsNet LA on every television in every home in Los Angeles as soon as possible,” said Stan Kasten, president and CEO of the Dodgers.

Despite fans’ anger and a crowded sports market that now includes an NFL team — the Los Angeles Rams — experts don’t believe that the Dodgers brand has been diminished in a significant way.

Jeff Marks, president of Santa Monica-based sports business advisory firm Premier Ventures, said the lack of carriage of the Dodgers channel has had “very little brand effect” on the Dodgers.

“The Dodgers did a lot of on-field and off-field moves this year to further their case as one of the strongest MLB brands,” Marks said.

This season the team won its fourth consecutive National League West crown and drew 3.7 million fans to Dodger Stadium – the most of any team in 2016, according to ESPN data.

Marks said he believes that most Dodgers fans do not blame the franchise for the limited TV viewing options.

“I think the Dodgers have done a really good job of shifting the blame — and appropriately doing so — to the others,” he said.

In 2013, Time Warner Cable agreed to pay $8.35 billion to the Dodgers’ organization over a 25-year period for the rights to distribute SportsNet LA.  Time Warner Cable then tried to strike deals with other pay-TV companies to carry the channel, but they balked at its high price.

The Justice Department said in its lawsuit that DirecTV orchestrated an effort to ensure that three other pay-TV companies — Cox Communications, Charter Communications and AT&T — would not carry SportsNet LA. The lawsuit alleges that the four firms shared nonpublic information to get bargaining leverage in negotiations with Time Warner Cable.

For fans like Yuan, the lawsuit is a welcome turn.

"It's about time they do what is right," said Yuan, 35. “This team is not exclusive to just one type of cable company you subscribe to."

Times staff writers Ruben Vives and Meg James contributed to this report.

samantha.masunaga@latimes.com

daniel.miller@latimes.com

ALSO

The feds' lawsuit over Dodgers channel could make it harder for AT&T to buy Time Warner

Why the Justice Department gets it wrong in lawsuit over Dodgers channel

Why the Justice Department gets it right in lawsuit over Dodgers channel

Copyright © 2017, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
65°