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The U.S. Supreme Court will hear a challenge next month to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals’ 2020 decision in NCAA v. Alston. Alston affirmed a district court decision that enjoined the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) from enforcing rules that restrict the education-related benefits its member institutions may offer students who play Football Bowl Subdivision football and Division I basketball.

This will be the first Supreme Court review of NCAA practices since NCAA v. Board of Regents in 1984, which applied the antitrust rule of reason in striking down the NCAA’s “artificial limit” on the quantity of televised college football games, but also recognized that “this case involves an industry in which horizontal restraints on competition are essential if the product [intercollegiate athletic contests] is to be available at all.” Significantly, in commenting on the nature of appropriate, competition-enhancing NCAA restrictions, the court in Board of Regents stated that:

[I]n order to preserve the character and quality of the [NCAA] ‘product,’ athletes must not be paid, must be required to attend class, and the like. And the integrity of the ‘product’ cannot be preserved except by mutual agreement; if an institution adopted such restrictions unilaterally, its effectiveness as a competitor on the playing field might soon be destroyed. Thus, the NCAA plays a vital role in enabling college football to preserve its character, and as a result enables a product to be marketed which might otherwise be unavailable. In performing this role, its actions widen consumer choice – not only the choices available to sports fans but also those available to athletes – and hence can be viewed as procompetitive. [footnote citation omitted]

One’s view of the Alston case may be shaped by one’s priors regarding the true nature of the NCAA. Is the NCAA a benevolent Dr. Jekyll, which seeks to promote amateurism and fairness in college sports to the benefit of student athletes and the general public?  Or is its benevolent façade a charade?  Although perhaps a force for good in its early years, has the NCAA transformed itself into an evil Mr. Hyde, using restrictive rules to maintain welfare-inimical monopoly power as a seller cartel of athletic events and a monopsony employer cartel that suppresses athletes’ wages? I will return to this question—and its bearing on the appropriate resolution of this legal dispute—after addressing key contentions by both sides in Alston.

Summarizing the Arguments in NCAA v Alston

The Alston class-action case followed in the wake of the 9th Circuit’s decision in O’Bannon v. NCAA (2015). O’Bannon affirmed in large part a district court’s ruling that the NCAA illegally restrained trade, in violation of Section 1 of the Sherman Act, by preventing football and men’s basketball players from receiving compensation for the use of their names, images, and likenesses. It also affirmed the district court’s injunction insofar as it required the NCAA to implement the less restrictive alternative of permitting athletic scholarships for the full cost of attendance. (I commented approvingly on the 9th Circuit’s decision in a previous TOTM post.) 

Subsequent antitrust actions by student-athletes were consolidated in the district court. After a bench trial, the district court entered judgment for the student-athletes, concluding in part that NCAA limits on education-related benefits were unreasonable restraints of trade. It enjoined those limits but declined to hold that other NCAA limits on compensation unrelated to education likewise violated Section 1.

In May 2020, a 9th Circuit panel held that the district court properly applied the three-step Sherman Act Section 1 rule of reason analysis in determining that the enjoined rules were unlawful restraints of trade.

First, the panel concluded that the student-athletes carried their burden at step one by showing that the restraints produced significant anticompetitive effects within the relevant market for student-athletes’ labor.

At step two, the NCAA was required to come forward with evidence of the restraints’ procompetitive effects. The panel endorsed the district court’s conclusion that only some of the challenged NCAA rules served the procompetitive purpose of preserving amateurism and thus improving consumer choice by maintaining a distinction between college and professional sports. Those rules were limits on above-cost-of-attendance payments unrelated to education, the cost-of-attendance cap on athletic scholarships, and certain restrictions on cash academic or graduation awards and incentives. The panel affirmed the district court’s conclusion that the remaining rules—restricting non-cash education-related benefits—did nothing to foster or preserve consumer demand. The panel held that the record amply supported the findings of the district court, which relied on demand analysis, survey evidence, and NCAA testimony.

The panel also affirmed the district court’s conclusion that, at step three, the student-athletes showed that any legitimate objectives could be achieved in a substantially less restrictive manner. The district court identified a less restrictive alternative of prohibiting the NCAA from capping certain education-related benefits and limiting academic or graduation awards or incentives below the maximum amount that an individual athlete may receive in athletic participation awards, while permitting individual conferences to set limits on education-related benefits. The panel held that the district court did not clearly err in determining that this alternative would be virtually as effective in serving the procompetitive purposes of the NCAA’s current rules and could be implemented without significantly increased cost.

Finally, the panel held that the district court’s injunction was not impermissibly vague and did not usurp the NCAA’s role as the superintendent of college sports. The panel also declined to broaden the injunction to include all NCAA compensation limits, including those on payments untethered to education. The panel concluded that the district court struck the right balance in crafting a remedy that both prevented anticompetitive harm to student-athletes while serving the procompetitive purpose of preserving the popularity of college sports.

The NCAA appealed to the Supreme Court, which granted the NCAA’s petition for certiorari Dec. 16, 2020. The NCAA contends that under Board of Regents, the NCAA rules regarding student-athlete compensation are reasonably related to preserving amateurism in college sports, are procompetitive, and should have been upheld after a short deferential review, rather than the full three-step rule of reason. According to the NCAA’s petition for certiorari, even under the detailed rule of reason, the 9th Circuit’s decision was defective. Specifically:

The Ninth Circuit … relieved plaintiffs of their burden to prove that the challenged rules unreasonably restrain trade, instead placing a “heavy burden” on the NCAA … to prove that each category of its rules is procompetitive and that an alternative compensation regime created by the district court could not preserve the procompetitive distinction between college and professional sports. That alternative regime—under which the NCAA must permit student-athletes to receive unlimited “education-related benefits,” including post-eligibility internships that pay unlimited amounts in cash and can be used for recruiting or retention—will vitiate the distinction between college and professional sports. And via the permanent injunction the Ninth Circuit upheld, the alternative regime will also effectively make a single judge in California the superintendent of a significant component of college sports. The Ninth Circuit’s approval of this judicial micromanagement of the NCAA denies the NCAA the latitude this Court has said it needs, and endorses unduly stringent scrutiny of agreements that define the central features of sports leagues’ and other joint ventures’ products. The decision thus twists the rule of reason into a tool to punish (and thereby deter) procompetitive activity.

Two amicus briefs support the NCAA’s position. One, filed on behalf of “antitrust law and business school professors,” stresses that the 9th Circuit’s decision misapplied the third step of the rule of reason by requiring defendants to show that their conduct was the least restrictive means available (instead of requiring plaintiff to prove the existence of an equally effective but less restrictive rule). More broadly:

[This approach] permits antitrust plaintiffs to commandeer the judiciary and use it to regulate and modify routine business conduct, so long as that conduct is not the least restrictive conduct imaginable by a plaintiff’s attorney or district judge. In turn, the risk that procompetitive ventures may be deemed unlawful and subject to treble damages liability simply because they could have operated in a marginally less restrictive manner is likely to chill beneficial business conduct.

A second brief, filed on behalf of “antitrust economists,” emphasizes that the NCAA has adapted the rules governing design of its product (college amateur sports) over time to meet consumer demand and to prevent colleges from pursuing their own interests (such as “pay to  play”) in ways that would conflict with the overall procompetitive aims of the collaboration. While acknowledging that antitrust courts are free to scrutinize collaborations’ rules that go beyond the design of the product itself (such as the NCAA’s broadcast restrictions), the brief cites key Supreme Court decisions (NCAA v. Board of Regents and Texaco Inc. v. Dagher), for the proposition that courts should stay out of restrictions on the core activity of the joint venture itself. It then summarizes the policy justification for such judicial non-interference:

Permitting judges and juries to apply the Sherman Act to such decisions [regarding core joint venture activity] will inevitably create uncertainty that undermines innovation and investment incentives across any number of industries and collaborative ventures. In these circumstances, antitrust courts would be making public policy regarding the desirability of a product with particular features, as opposed to ferreting out agreements or unilateral conduct that restricts output, raises prices, or reduces innovation to the detriment of consumers.

In their brief opposing certiorari, counsel for Alston take the position that, in reality, the NCAA is seeking a special antitrust exemption for its competitively restrictive conduct—an issue that should be determined by Congress, not courts. Their brief notes that the concept of “amateurism” has changed over the years and that some increases in athletes’ compensation have been allowed over time. Thus, in the context of big-time college football and basketball:

[A]mateurism is little more than a pretext. It is certainly not a Sherman Act concept, much less a get-out-of-jail-free card that insulates any particular set of NCAA restraints from scrutiny.

Who Has the Better Case?

The NCAA’s position is a strong one. Association rules touching on compensation for college athletes are part of the core nature of the NCAA’s “amateur sports” product, as the Supreme Court stated (albeit in dictum) in Board of Regents. Furthermore, subsequent Supreme Court jurisprudence (see 2010’s American Needle Inc. v. NFL) has eschewed second-guessing of joint-venture product design decisions—which, in the case of the NCAA, involve formulating the restrictions (such as whether and how to compensate athletes) that are deemed key to defining amateurism.

The Alston amicus curiae briefs ably set forth the strong policy considerations that support this approach, centered on preserving incentives for the development of efficient welfare-generating joint ventures. Requiring joint venturers to provide “least restrictive means” justifications for design decisions discourages innovative activity and generates costly uncertainty for joint-venture planners, to the detriment of producers and consumers (who benefit from joint-venture innovations) alike. Claims by defendant Alston that the NCAA is in effect seeking to obtain a judicial antitrust exemption miss the mark; rather, the NCAA merely appears to be arguing that antitrust should be limited to evaluating restrictions that fall outside the scope of the association’s core mission. Significantly, as discussed in the NCAA’s brief petitioning for certiorari, other federal courts of appeals decisions in the 3rd, 5th, and 7th Circuits have treated NCAA bylaws going to the definition of amateurism in college sports as presumptively procompetitive and not subject to close scrutiny. Thus, based on the arguments set forth by litigants, a Supreme Court victory for the NCAA in Alston would appear sound as a matter of law and economics.

There may, however, be a catch. Some popular commentary has portrayed the NCAA as a malign organization that benefits affluent universities (and their well-compensated coaches) while allowing member colleges to exploit athletes by denying them fair pay—in effect, an institutional Mr. Hyde.

What’s more, consistent with the Mr. Hyde story, a number of major free-market economists (including, among others, Nobel laureate Gary Becker) have portrayed the NCAA as an anticompetitive monopsony employer cartel that has suppressed the labor market demand for student athletes, thereby limiting their wages, fringe benefits, and employment opportunities. (In a similar vein, the NCAA is seen as a monopolist seller cartel in the market for athletic events.) Consistent with this perspective, promoting the public good of amateurism (the Dr. Jekyll story) is merely a pretextual façade (a cover story, if you will) for welfare-inimical naked cartel conduct. If one buys this alternative story, all core product restrictions adopted by the NCAA should be fair game for close antitrust scrutiny—and thus, the 9th Circuit’s decision in Alston merits affirmation as a matter of antitrust policy.

There is, however, a persuasive response to the cartel story, set forth in Richard McKenzie and Dwight Lee’s essay “The NCAA:  A Case Study of the Misuse of the Monopsony and Monopoly Models” (Chapter 8 of their 2008 book “In Defense of Monopoly:  How Market Power Fosters Creative Production”). McKenzie and Lee examine the evidence bearing on economists’ monopsony cartel assertions (and, in particular, the evidence presented in a 1992 study by Arthur Fleischer, Brian Goff, and Richard Tollison) and find it wanting:

Our analysis leads inexorably to the conclusion that the conventional economic wisdom regarding the intent and consequences of NCAA restrictions is hardly as solid, on conceptual grounds, as the NCAA critics assert, often without citing relevant court cases. We have argued that the conventional wisdom is wrong in suggesting that, as a general proposition,

• college athletes are materially “underpaid” and are “exploited”;

• cheating on NCAA rules is prima facie evidence of a cartel intending to restrict employment and suppress athletes’ wages;

• NCAA rules violate conventional antitrust doctrine;          

• barriers to entry ensure the continuance of the NCAA’s monopsony powers over athletes.

No such entry barriers (other than normal organizational costs, which need to be covered to meet any known efficiency test for new entrants) exist. In addition, the Supreme Court’s decision in NCAA indicates that the NCAA would be unable to prevent through the courts the emergence of competing athletic associations. The actual existence of other athletic associations indicates that entry would be not only possible but also practical if athletes’ wages were materially suppressed.

Conventional economic analysis of NCAA rules that we have challenged also is misleading in suggesting that collegiate sports would necessarily be improved if the NCAA were denied the authority to regulate the payment of athletes. Given the absence of legal barriers to entry into the athletic association market, it appears that if athletes’ wages were materially suppressed (or as grossly suppressed as the critics claim), alternative sports associations would form or expand, and the NCAA would be unable to maintain its presumed monopsony market position. The incentive for colleges and universities to break with the NCAA would be overwhelming.

From our interpretation of NCAA rules, it does not follow necessarily that athletes should not receive any more compensation than they do currently. Clearly, market conditions change, and NCAA rules often must be adjusted to accommodate those changes. In the absence of entry barriers, we can expect the NCAA to adjust, as it has adjusted, in a competitive manner its rules of play, recruitment, and retention of athletes. Our central point is that contrary to the proponents of the monopsony thesis, the collegiate athletic market is subject to the self-correcting mechanism of market pressures. We have reason to believe that the proposed extension of the antitrust enforcement to the NCAA rules or proposed changes in sports law explicitly or implicitly recommended by the proponents of the cartel thesis would be not only unnecessary but also counterproductive.

Although a closer examination of the McKenzie and Lee’s critique of the economists’ cartel story is beyond the scope of this comment, I find it compelling.

Conclusion

In sum, the claim that antitrust may properly be applied to combat the alleged “exploitation” of college athletes by NCAA compensation regulations does not stand up to scrutiny. The NCAA’s rules that define the scope of amateurism may be imperfect, but there is no reason to think that empowering federal judges to second guess and reformulate NCAA athletic compensation rules would yield a more socially beneficial (let alone optimal) outcome. (Believing that the federal judiciary can optimally reengineer core NCAA amateurism rules is a prime example of the Nirvana fallacy at work.)  Furthermore, a Supreme Court decision affirming the 9th Circuit could do broad mischief by undermining case law that has accorded joint venturers substantial latitude to design the core features of their collective enterprise without judicial second-guessing. It is to be hoped that the Supreme Court will do the right thing and strongly reaffirm the NCAA’s authority to design and reformulate its core athletic amateurism product as it sees fit.

In its June 21 opinion in NCAA v. Alston, a unanimous U.S. Supreme Court affirmed the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals and thereby upheld a district court injunction finding unlawful certain National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) rules limiting the education-related benefits schools may make available to student athletes. The decision will come as no surprise to antitrust lawyers who heard the oral argument; the NCAA was portrayed as a monopsony cartel whose rules undermined competition by restricting compensation paid to athletes.

Alas, however, Alston demonstrates that seemingly “good facts” (including an apparently Scrooge-like defendant) can make very bad law. While superficially appearing to be a relatively straightforward application of Sherman Act rule of reason principles, the decision fails to come to grips with the relationship of the restraints before it to the successful provision of the NCAA’s joint venture product – amateur intercollegiate sports. What’s worse, Associate Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s concurring opinion further muddies the court’s murky jurisprudential waters by signaling his view that the NCAA’s remaining compensation rules are anticompetitive and could be struck down in an appropriate case (“it is not clear how the NCAA can defend its remaining compensation rules”). Prospective plaintiffs may be expected to take the hint.

The Court’s Flawed Analysis

I previously commented on this then-pending case a few months ago:

In sum, the claim that antitrust may properly be applied to combat the alleged “exploitation” of college athletes by NCAA compensation regulations does not stand up to scrutiny. The NCAA’s rules that define the scope of amateurism may be imperfect, but there is no reason to think that empowering federal judges to second guess and reformulate NCAA athletic compensation rules would yield a more socially beneficial (let alone optimal) outcome. (Believing that the federal judiciary can optimally reengineer core NCAA amateurism rules is a prime example of the Nirvana fallacy at work.)  Furthermore, a Supreme Court decision affirming the 9th Circuit could do broad mischief by undermining case law that has accorded joint venturers substantial latitude to design the core features of their collective enterprise without judicial second-guessing.

Unfortunately, my concerns about a Supreme Court affirmance of the 9th Circuit were realized. Associate Justice Neil Gorsuch’s opinion for the court in Alston manifests a blinkered approach to the NCAA “monopsony” joint venture. To be sure, it cites and briefly discusses key Supreme Court joint venture holdings, including 2006’s Texaco v. Dagher. Nonetheless, it gives short shrift to the efficiency-based considerations that counsel presumptive deference to joint venture design rules that are key to the nature of a joint venture’s product.  

As a legal matter, the court felt obliged to defer to key district court findings not contested by the NCAA—including that the NCAA enjoys “monopsony power” in the student athlete labor market, and that the NCAA’s restrictions in fact decrease student athlete compensation “below the competitive level.”

However, even conceding these points, the court could have, but did not, take note of and assess the role of the restrictions under review in helping engender the enormous consumer benefits the NCAA confers upon consumers of its collegiate sports product. There is good reason to view those restrictions as an effort by the NCAA to address a negative externality that could diminish the attractiveness of the NCAA’s product for ultimate consumers, a result that would in turn reduce inter-brand competition.

As the amicus brief by antitrust economists (“Antitrust Economists Brief”) pointed out:

[T]he NCAA’s consistent and growing popularity reflects a product—”amateur sports” played by students and identified with the academic tradition—that continues to generate enormous consumer interest. Moreover, it appears without dispute that the NCAA, while in control of the design of its own athletic products, has preserved their integrity as amateur sports, notwithstanding the commercial success of some of them, particularly Division I basketball and Football Subdivision football. . . . Over many years, the NCAA has continually adjusted its eligibility and participation rules to prevent colleges from pursuing their own interests—which certainly can involve “pay to play”—in ways that would conflict with the procompetitive aims of the collaboration. In this sense, the NCAA’s amateurism rules are a classic example of addressing negative externalities and free riding that often are inherent or arise in the collaboration context.

The use of contractual restrictions (vertical restraints) to counteract free riding and other negative externalities generated in manufacturer-distributor interactions are well-recognized by antitrust courts. Although the restraints at issue in NCAA (and many other joint venture situations) are horizontal in nature, not vertical, they may be just as important as other nonstandard contracts in aligning the incentives of member institutions to best satisfy ultimate consumers. Satisfying consumers, in turn, enhances inter-brand competition between the NCAA’s product and other rival forms of entertainment, including professional sports offerings.

Alan Meese made a similar point in a recent paper (discussing a possible analytical framework for the court’s then-imminent Alston analysis):

[U]nchecked bidding for the services of student athletes could result in a market failure and suboptimal product quality, proof that the restraint reduces student athlete compensation below what an unbridled market would produce should not itself establish a prima facie case. Such evidence would instead be equally consistent with a conclusion that the restraint eliminates this market failure and restores compensation to optimal levels.

The court’s failure to address the externality justification was compounded by its handling of the rule of reason. First, in rejecting a truncated rule of reason with an initial presumption that the NCAA’s restraints involving student compensation are procompetitive, the court accepted that the NCAA’s monopsony power showed that its restraints “can (and in fact do) harm competition.” This assertion ignored the efficiency justification discussed above. As the Antitrust Economists’ Brief emphasized: 

[A]cting more like regulators, the lower courts treated the NCAA’s basic product design as inherently anticompetitive [so did the Supreme Court], pushing forward with a full rule of reason that sent the parties into a morass of inquiries that were not (and were never intended to be) structured to scrutinize basic product design decisions and their hypothetical alternatives. Because that inquiry was unrestrained and untethered to any input or output restraint, the application of the rule of reason in this case necessarily devolved into a quasi-regulatory inquiry, which antitrust law eschews.

Having decided that a “full” rule of reason analysis is appropriate, the Supreme Court, in effect, imposed a “least restrictive means” test on the restrictions under review, while purporting not to do so. (“We agree with the NCAA’s premise that antitrust law does not require businesses to use anything like the least restrictive means of achieving legitimate business purposes.”) The court concluded that “it was only after finding the NCAA’s restraints ‘patently and inexplicably stricter than is necessary’ to achieve the procompetitive benefits the league had demonstrated that the district court proceeded to declare a violation of the Sherman Act.” Effectively, however, this statement deferred to the lower court’s second-guessing of the means employed by the NCAA to preserve consumer demand, which the lower court did without any empirical basis.

The Supreme Court also approved the district court’s rejection of the NCAA’s view of what amateurism requires. It stressed the district court’s findings that “the NCAA’s rules and restrictions on compensation have shifted markedly over time” (seemingly a reasonable reaction to changes in market conditions) and that the NCAA developed the restrictions at issue without any reference to “considerations of consumer demand” (a de facto regulatory mandate directed at the NCAA). The Supreme Court inexplicably dubbed these lower court actions “a straightforward application of the rule of reason.” These actions seem more like blind deference to rather arbitrary judicial second-guessing of the expert party with the greatest interest in satisfying consumer demand.

The Supreme Court ended its misbegotten commentary on “less restrictive alternatives” by first claiming that it agreed that “antitrust courts must give wide berth to business judgments before finding liability.” The court asserted that the district court honored this and other principles of judicial humility because it enjoined restraints on education-related benefits “only after finding that relaxing these restrictions would not blur the distinction between college and professional sports and thus impair demand – and only finding that this course represented a significantly (not marginally) less restrictive means of achieving the same procompetitive benefits as the NCAA’s current rules.” This lower court finding once again was not based on an empirical analysis of procompetitive benefits under different sets of rules. It was little more than the personal opinion of a judge, who lacked the NCAA’s knowledge of relevant markets and expertise. That the Supreme Court accepted it as an exercise in restrained judicial analysis is well nigh inexplicable.

The Antitrust Economists’ Brief, unlike the Supreme Court, enunciated the correct approach to judicial rewriting of core NCAA joint venture rules:

The institutions that are members of the NCAA want to offer a particular type of athletic product—an amateur athletic product that they believe is consonant with their primary academic missions. By doing so, as th[e] [Supreme] Court has [previously] recognized [in its 1984 NCAA v. Board of Regents decision], they create a differentiated offering that widens consumer choice and enhances opportunities for student-athletes. NCAA, 468 U.S. at 102. These same institutions have drawn lines that they believe balance their desire to foster intercollegiate athletic competition with their overarching academic missions. Both the district court and the Ninth Circuit have now said that they may not do so, unless they draw those lines differently. Yet neither the district court nor the Ninth Circuit determined that the lines drawn reduce the output of intercollegiate athletics or ascertained whether their judicially-created lines would expand that output. That is not the function of antitrust courts, but of legislatures.                                                                                                   

Other Harms the Court Failed to Consider                    

Finally, the court failed to consider other harms that stem from a presumptive suspicion of NCAA restrictions on athletic compensation in general. The elimination of compensation rules should favor large well-funded athletic programs over others, potentially undermining “competitive balance” among schools. (Think of an NCAA March Madness tournament where “Cinderella stories” are eliminated, as virtually all the talented players have been snapped up by big name schools.) It could also, through the reallocation of income to “big name big sports” athletes who command a bidding premium, potentially reduce funding support for “minor college sports” that provide opportunities to a wide variety of student-athletes. This would disadvantage those athletes, undermine the future of “minor” sports, and quite possibly contribute to consumer disillusionment and unhappiness (think of the millions of parents of “minor sports” athletes).

What’s more, the existing rules allow many promising but non-superstar athletes to develop their skills over time, enhancing their ability to eventually compete at the professional level. (This may even be the case for some superstars, who may obtain greater long-term financial rewards by refining their talents and showcasing their skills for a year or two in college.) In addition, the current rules climate allows many student athletes who do not turn professional to develop personal connections that serve them well in their professional and personal lives, including connections derived from the “brand” of their university. (Think of wealthy and well-connected alumni who are ardent fans of their colleges’ athletic programs.) In a world without NCAA amateurism rules, the value of these experiences and connections could wither, to the detriment of athletes and consumers alike. (Consistent with my conclusion, economists Richard McKenzie and Dwight Lee have argued against the proposition that “college athletes are materially ‘underpaid’ and are ‘exploited’”.)   

This “parade of horribles” might appear unlikely in the short term. Nevertheless, in the course of time, the inability of the NCAA to control the attributes of its product, due to a changed legal climate, make it all too real. This is especially the case in light of Justice Kavanaugh’s strong warning that other NCAA compensation restrictions are likely indefensible. (As he bluntly put it, venerable college sports “traditions alone cannot justify the NCAA’s decision to build a massive money-raising enterprise on the backs of student athletes who are not fairly compensated. . . . The NCAA is not above the law.”)

Conclusion

The Supreme Court’s misguided Alston decision fails to weigh the powerful efficiency justifications for the NCAA’s amateurism rules. This holding virtually invites other lower courts to ignore efficiencies and to second guess decisions that go to the heart of the NCAA’s joint venture product offering. The end result is likely to reduce consumer welfare and, quite possibly, the welfare of many student athletes as well. One would hope that Congress, if it chooses to address NCAA rules, will keep these dangers well in mind. A statutory change not directed solely at the NCAA, creating a rebuttable presumption of legality for restraints that go to the heart of a lawful joint venture, may merit serious consideration.   

I am delighted to announce that Alden Abbott has returned to TOTM as a regular blogger following his recent stint as General Counsel of the FTC. You can find his first post since his return, on the NCAA v. Alston case, here.

Regular readers know Alden well, of course. Not only has he long been one of the most prolific and insightful thinkers on the antitrust scene, but from 2014 until his departure when he (re)joined the FTC in 2018, he had done some of his most prolific and insightful thinking here at TOTM.

As I wrote when Alden joined TOTM in 2014:

Alden has been at the center of the US antitrust universe for most of his career. When he retired from the FTC in 2012, he had served as Deputy Director of the Office of International Affairs for three years. Before that he was Director of Policy and Coordination, FTC Bureau of Competition; Acting General Counsel, Department of Commerce; Chief Counsel, National Telecommunications and Information Administration; Senior Counsel, Office of Legal Counsel, DOJ; and Special Assistant to the Assistant Attorney General for Antitrust, DOJ.

For those who may not know, Alden left the FTC earlier this year and is now a Senior Research Fellow at the Mercatus Center.

Welcome back, Alden!

From Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) to Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.), populist calls to “fix” our antitrust laws and the underlying Consumer Welfare Standard have found a foothold on Capitol Hill. At the same time, there are calls to “fix” the Supreme Court by packing it with new justices. The court’s unanimous decision in NCAA v. Alston demonstrates that neither needs repair. To the contrary, clearly anti-competitive conduct—like the NCAA’s compensation rules—is proscribed under the Consumer Welfare Standard, and every justice from Samuel Alito to Sonia Sotomayor can agree on that.

In 1984, the court in NCAA v. Board of Regents suggested that “courts should take care when assessing the NCAA’s restraints on student-athlete compensation.” After all, joint ventures like sports leagues are entitled to rule-of-reason treatment. But while times change, the Consumer Welfare Standard is sufficiently flexible to meet those changes.

Where a competitive restraint exists primarily to ensure that “enormous sums of money flow to seemingly everyone except the student athletes,” the court rightly calls it out for what it is. As Associate Justice Brett Kavanaugh wrote in his concurrence:

Nowhere else in America can businesses get away with agreeing not to pay their workers a fair market rate on the theory that their product is defined by not paying their workers a fair market rate.  And under ordinary principles of antitrust law, it is not evident why college sports should be any different.  The NCAA is not above the law.

Disturbing these “ordinary principles”—whether through legislation, administrative rulemaking, or the common law—is simply unnecessary. For example, the Open Markets Institute filed an amicus brief arguing that the rule of reason should be “bounded” and willfully blind to the pro-competitive benefits some joint ventures can create (an argument that has been used, unsuccessfully, to attack ridesharing services like Uber and Lyft). Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) has proposed shifting the burden of proof so that merging parties are guilty until proven innocent. Sen. Warren would go further, deeming Amazon’s acquisition of Whole Foods anti-competitive simply because the company is “big,” and ignoring the merger’s myriad pro-competitive benefits. Sen. Hawley has gone further still: calling on Amazon to be investigated criminally for the crime of being innovative and successful.

Several of the current proposals, including those from Sens. Klobuchar and Hawley (and those recently introduced in the House that essentially single out firms for disfavored treatment), would replace the Consumer Welfare Standard that has underpinned antitrust law for decades with a policy that effectively punishes firms for being politically unpopular.

These examples demonstrate we should be wary when those in power assert that things are so irreparably broken that they need a complete overhaul. The “solutions” peddled usually increase politicians’ power by enabling them to pick winners and losers through top-down approaches that stifle the bottom-up innovations that make consumers’ lives better.

Are antitrust law and the Supreme Court perfect? Hardly. But in a 9-0 decision, the court proved this week that there’s nothing broken about either.

Yesterday Learfield and IMG College inked their recently announced merger. Since the negotiations were made public several weeks ago, the deal has garnered some wild speculation and potentially negative attention. Now that the merger has been announced, it’s bound to attract even more attention and conjecture.

On the field of competition, however, the market realities that support the merger’s approval are compelling. And, more importantly, the features of this merger provide critical lessons on market definition, barriers to entry, and other aspects of antitrust law related to two-sided and advertising markets that can be applied to numerous matters vexing competition commentators.

First, some background

Learfield and IMG specialize in managing multimedia rights (MMRs) for intercollegiate sports. They are, in effect, classic advertising intermediaries, facilitating the monetization by colleges of radio broadcast advertising and billboard, program, and scoreboard space during games (among other things), and the purchase by advertisers of access to these valuable outlets.

Although these transactions can certainly be (and very often are) entered into by colleges and advertisers directly, firms like Learfield and IMG allow colleges to outsource the process — as one firm’s tag line puts it, “We Work | You Play.” Most important, by bringing multiple schools’ MMRs under one roof, these firms can reduce the transaction costs borne by advertisers in accessing multiple outlets as part of a broad-based marketing plan.

Media rights and branding are a notable source of revenue for collegiate athletic departments: on average, they account for about 3% of these revenues. While they tend to pale in comparison to TV rights, ticket sales, and fundraising, for major programs, MMRs may be the next most important revenue source after these.

Many collegiate programs retain some or all of their multimedia rights and use in-house resources to market them. In some cases schools license MMRs through their athletic conference. In other cases, schools ink deals to outsource their MMRs to third parties, such as Learfield, IMG, JMI Sports, Outfront Media, and Fox Sports, among several others. A few schools even use professional sports teams to manage their MMRs (the owner of the Red Sox manages Boston College’s MMRs, for example).

Schools switch among MMR managers with some regularity, and, in most cases apparently, not among the merging parties. Michigan State, for example, was well known for handling its MMRs in-house. But in 2016 the school entered into a 15-year deal with Fox Sports, estimated at minimum guaranteed $150 million. In 2014 Arizona State terminated its MMR deal with IMG and took it MMRs in-house. Then, in 2016, the Sun Devils entered into a first-of-its-kind arrangement with the Pac 12 in which the school manages and sells its own marketing and media rights while the conference handles core business functions for the sales and marketing team (like payroll, accounting, human resources, and employee benefits). The most successful new entrant on the block, JMI Sports, won Kentucky, Clemson, and the University of Pennsylvania from Learfield or IMG. Outfront Media was spun off from CBS in 2014 and has become one of the strongest MMR intermediary competitors, handling some of the biggest names in college sports, including LSU, Maryland, and Virginia. All told, eight recent national Division I champions are served by MMR managers other than IMG and Learfield.

The supposed problem

As noted above, the most obvious pro-competitive benefit of the merger is in the reduction in transaction costs for firms looking to advertise in multiple markets. But, in order to confer that benefit (which, of course, also benefits the schools, whose marketing properties become easier to access), that also means a dreaded increase in size, measured by number of schools’ MMRs managed. So is this cause for concern?

Jason Belzer, a professor at Rutgers University and founder of sports consulting firm, GAME, Inc., has said that the merger will create a juggernaut — yes, “a massive inexorable force… that crushes whatever is in its path” — that is likely to invite antitrust scrutiny. The New York Times opines that the deal will allow Learfield to “tighten its grip — for nearly total control — on this niche but robust market,” “surely” attracting antitrust scrutiny. But these assessments seem dramatically overblown, and insufficiently grounded in the dynamics of the market.

Belzer’s concerns seem to be merely the size of the merging parties — again, measured by the number of schools’ rights they manage — and speculation that the merger would bring to an end “any” opportunity for entry by a “major” competitor. These are misguided concerns.

To begin, the focus on the potential entry of a “major” competitor is an odd standard that ignores the actual and potential entry of many smaller competitors that are able to win some of the most prestigious and biggest schools. In fact, many in the industry argue — rightly — that there are few economies of scale for colleges. Most of these firms’ employees are dedicated to a particular school and those costs must be incurred for each school, no matter the number, and borne by new entrants and incumbents alike. That means a small firm can profitably compete in the same market as larger firms — even “juggernauts.” Indeed, every college that brings MMR management in-house is, in fact, an entrant — and there are some big schools in big conferences that manage their MMRs in-house.

The demonstrated entry of new competitors and the transitions of schools from one provider to another or to in-house MMR management indicate that no competitor has any measurable market power that can disadvantage schools or advertisers.

Indeed, from the perspective of the school, the true relevant market is no broader than each school’s own rights. Even after the merger there will be at least five significant firms competing for those rights, not to mention each school’s conference, new entrants, and the school itself.

The two-sided market that isn’t really two-sided

Standard antitrust analysis, of course, focuses on consumer benefits: Will the merger make consumers better off (or no worse off)? But too often casual antitrust analysis of two-sided markets trips up on identifying just who the consumer is — and what the relevant market is. For a shopping mall, is the consumer the retailer or the shopper? For newspapers and search engines, is the customer the advertiser or the reader? For intercollegiate sports multimedia rights licensing, is the consumer the college or the advertiser?

Media coverage of the anticipated IMG/Learfield merger largely ignores advertisers as consumers and focuses almost exclusively on the the schools’ relationship with intermediaries — as purchasers of marketing services, rather than sellers of advertising space.

Although it’s difficult to identify the source of this odd bias, it seems to be based on the notion that, while corporations like Coca-Cola and General Motors have some sort of countervailing market power against marketing intermediaries, universities don’t. With advertisers out of the picture, media coverage suggests that, somehow, schools may be worse off if the merger were to proceed. But missing from this assessment are two crucial facts that undermine the story: First, schools actually have enormous market power; and, second, schools compete in the business of MMR management.

This second factor suggests, in fact, that sometimes there may be nothing special about two-sided markets sufficient to give rise to a unique style of antitrust analysis.

Much of the antitrust confusion seems to be based on confusion over the behavior of two-sided markets. A two-sided market is one in which two sets of actors interact through an intermediary or platform, which, in turn, facilitates the transactions, often enabling transactions to take place that otherwise would be too expensive absent the platform. A shopping mall is a two-sided market where shoppers can find their preferred stores. Stores would operate without the platform, but perhaps not as many, and not as efficiently. Newspapers, search engines, and other online platforms are two-sided markets that bring together advertisers and eyeballs that might not otherwise find each other absent the platform. And a collegiate multimedia rights management firms is a two-sided market where colleges that want to sell advertising space get together with firms that want to advertise their goods and services.

Yet there is nothing particularly “transformative” about the outsourcing of MMR management. Credit cards, for example are qualitatively different than in-store credit operations. They are two-sided platforms that substitute for in-house operations — but they also create an entirely new product and product market. MMR marketing firms do lower some transaction costs and reduce risk for collegiate sports marketing, but the product is not substantially changed — in fact, schools must have the knowledge and personnel to assess and enter into the initial sale of MMRs to an intermediary and, because of ongoing revenue-sharing and coordination with the intermediary, must devote ongoing resources even after the initial sale.

But will a merged entity have “too much” power? Imagine if a single firm owned the MMRs for nearly all intercollegiate competitors. How would it be able to exercise its supposed market power? Because each deal is negotiated separately, and, other than some mundane, fixed back-office expenses, the costs of rights management must be incurred whether a firm negotiates one deal or 100, there are no substantial economies of scale in the purchasing of MMRs. As a result, the existence of deals with other schools won’t automatically translate into better deals with subsequent schools.

Now, imagine if one school retained its own MMRs, but decided it might want to license them to an intermediary. Does it face anticompetitive market conditions if there is only a single provider of such services? To begin with, there is never only a single provider, as each school can provide the services in-house. This is not even the traditional monopoly constraint of simply “not buying,” which makes up the textbook “deadweight loss” from monopoly: In this case “not buying” does not mean going without; it simply means providing for oneself.

More importantly, because the school has a monopoly on access to its own marketing rights (to say nothing of access to its own physical facilities) unless and until it licenses them, its own bargaining power is largely independent of an intermediary’s access to other schools’ rights. If it were otherwise, each school would face anticompetitive market conditions simply by virtue of other schools’ owning their own rights!

It is possible that a larger, older firm will have more expertise and will be better able to negotiate deals with other schools — i.e., it will reap the benefits of learning by doing. But the returns to learning by doing derive from the ability to offer higher-quality/lower-cost services over time — which are a source of economic benefit, not cost. At the same time, the bulk of the benefits of experience may be gained over time with even a single set of MMRs, given the ever-varying range of circumstances even a single school will create: There may be little additional benefit (and, to be sure, there is additional cost) from managing multiple schools’ MMRs. And whatever benefits specialized firms offer, they also come with agency costs, and an intermediary’s specialized knowledge about marketing MMRs may or may not outweigh a school’s own specialized knowledge about the nuances of its particular circumstances. Moreover, because of knowledge spillovers and employee turnover this marketing expertise is actually widely distributed; not surprisingly, JMI Sports’ MMR unit, one of the most recent and successful entrants into the business was started by a former employee of IMG. Several other firms started out the same way.

The right way to begin thinking about the issue is this: Imagine if MMR intermediaries didn’t exist — what would happen? In this case, the answer is readily apparent because, for a significant number of schools (about 37% of Division I schools, in fact) MMR licensing is handled in-house, without the use of intermediaries. These schools do, in fact, attract advertisers, and there is little indication that they earn less net profit for going it alone. Schools with larger audiences, better targeted to certain advertisers’ products, command higher prices. Each school enjoys an effective monopoly over advertising channels around its own games, and each has bargaining power derived from its particular attractiveness to particular advertisers.

In effect, each school faces a number of possible options for MMR monetization — most notably a) up-front contracting to an intermediary, which then absorbs the risk, expense, and possible up-side of ongoing licensing to advertisers, or b) direct, ongoing licensing to advertisers. The presence of the intermediary doesn’t appreciably change the market, nor the relative bargaining power of sellers (schools) and buyers (advertisers) of advertising space any more than the presence of temp firms transforms the fundamental relationship between employers and potential part-time employees.

In making their decisions, schools always have the option of taking their MMR management in-house. In facing competing bids from firms such as IMG or Learfield, from their own conferences, or from professional sports teams, the opening bid, in a sense, comes from the school itself. Even the biggest intermediary in the industry must offer the school a deal that is at least as good as managing the MMRs in-house.

The true relevant market: Advertising

According to economist Andy Schwarz, if the relevant market is “college-based marketing services to Power 5 schools, the antitrust authorities may have more concerns than if it’s marketing services in sports.” But this entirely misses the real market exchange here. Sure, marketing services are purchased by schools, but their value to the schools is independent of the number of other schools an intermediary also markets.

Advertisers always have the option of deploying their ad dollars elsewhere. If Coca-Cola wants to advertise on Auburn’s stadium video board, it’s because Auburn’s video board is a profitable outlet for advertising, not because the Auburn ads are bundled with advertising at dozens of other schools (although that bundling may reduce the total cost of advertising on Auburn’s scoreboard as well as other outlets). Similarly, Auburn is seeking the highest bidder for space on its video board. It does not matter to Auburn that the University of Georgia is using the same intermediary to sell ads on its stadium video board.

The willingness of purchasers — say, Coca-Cola or Toyota — to pay for collegiate multimedia advertising is a function of the school that licenses it (net transaction costs) — and MMR agents like IMG and Learfield commit substantial guaranteed sums and a share of any additional profits for the rights to sell that advertising: For example, IMG recently agreed to pay $150 million over 10 years to renew its MMR contract at UCLA. But this is the value of a particular, niche form of advertising, determined within the context of the broader advertising market. How much pricing power over scoreboard advertising does any university, or even any group of universities under the umbrella of an intermediary have, in a world in which Coke and Toyota can advertise virtually anywhere — including during commercial breaks in televised intercollegiate games, which are licensed separately from the MMRs licensed by companies like IMG and Learfield?

There is, in other words, a hard ceiling on what intermediaries can charge schools for MMR marketing services: The schools’ own cost of operating a comparable program in-house.

To be sure, for advertisers, large MMR marketing firms lower the transaction costs of buying advertising space across a range of schools, presumably increasing demand for intercollegiate sports advertising and sponsorship. But sponsors and advertisers have a wide range of options for spending their marketing dollars. Intercollegiate sports MMRs are a small slice of the sports advertising market, which, in turn, is a small slice of the total advertising market. Even if one were to incorrectly describe the combined entity as a “juggernaut” in intercollegiate sports, the MMR rights it sells would still be a flyspeck in the broader market of multimedia advertising.

According to one calculation (by MoffettNathanson), total ad spending in the U.S. was about $191 billion in 2016 (Pew Research Center estimates total ad revenue at $240 billion) and the global advertising market was estimated to be worth about $493 billion. The intercollegiate MMR segment represents a minuscule fraction of that. According to Jason Belzer, “[a]t the time of its sale to WME in 2013, IMG College’s yearly revenue was nearly $500 million….” Another source puts it at $375 million. Either way, it’s a fraction of one percent of the total market, and even combined with Learfield it will remain a minuscule fraction. Even if one were to define a far narrower sports sponsorship market, which a Price Waterhouse estimate puts at around $16 billion, the combined companies would still have a tiny market share.

As sellers of MMRs, colleges are competing with each other, professional sports such as the NFL and NBA, and with non-sports marketing opportunities. And it’s a huge and competitive market.

Barriers to entry

While capital requirements and the presence of long-term contracts may present challenges to potential entrants into the business of marketing MMRs, these potential entrants face virtually no barriers that are not, or have not been, faced by incumbent providers. In this context, one should keep in mind two factors. First, barriers to entry are properly defined as costs incurred by new entrants that are not incurred by incumbents (no matter what Joe Bain says; Stigler always wins this dispute…). Every firm must bear the cost of negotiating and managing each schools’ MMRs, and, as noted, these costs don’t vary significantly with the number of schools being managed. And every entrant needs approximately the same capital and human resources per similarly sized school as every incumbent. Thus, in this context, neither the need for capital nor dedicated employees is properly construed as a barrier to entry.

Second, as the DOJ and FTC acknowledge in the Horizontal Merger Guidelines, any merger can be lawful under the antitrust laws, no matter its market share, where there are no significant barriers to entry:

The prospect of entry into the relevant market will alleviate concerns about adverse competitive effects… if entry into the market is so easy that the merged firm and its remaining rivals in the market, either unilaterally or collectively, could not profitably raise price or otherwise reduce competition compared to the level that would prevail in the absence of the merger.

As noted, there are low economies of scale in the business, with most of the economies occurring in the relatively small “back office” work of payroll, accounting, human resources, and employee benefits. Since the 2000s, the entry of several significant competitors — many entering with only one or two schools or specializing in smaller or niche markets — strongly suggests that there are no economically important barriers to entry. And these firms have entered and succeeded with a wide range of business models and firm sizes:

  • JMI Sports — a “rising boutique firm” — hired Tom Stultz, the former senior vice president and managing director of IMG’s MMR business, in 2012. JMI won its first (and thus, at the time, only) MMR bid in 2014 at the University of Kentucky, besting IMG to win the deal.
  • Peak Sports MGMT, founded in 2012, is a small-scale MMR firm that focuses on lesser Division I and II schools in Texas and the Midwest. It manages just seven small properties, including Southland Conference schools like the University of Central Arkansas and Southeastern Louisiana University.
  • Fox Sports entered the business in 2008 with a deal with the University of Florida. It now handles MMRs for schools like Georgetown, Auburn, and Villanova. Fox’s entry suggests that other media companies — like ESPN — that may already own TV broadcast rights are also potential entrants.
  • In 2014 the sports advertising firm, Van Wagner, hired three former Nelligan employees to make a play for the college sports space. In 2015 the company won its first MMR bid at Florida International University, reportedly against seven other participants. It now handles more than a dozen schools including Georgia State (which it won from IMG), Loyola Marymount, Pepperdine, Stony Brook, and Santa Clara.
  • In 2001 Fenway Sports Group, parent company of the Boston Red Sox and Liverpool Football Club, entered into an MMR agreement with Boston College. And earlier this year the Tampa Bay Lightning hockey team began handling multimedia marketing for the University of South Florida.

Potential new entrants abound. Most obviously, sports networks like ESPN could readily follow Fox Sports’ lead and advertising firms could follow Van Wagner’s. These companies have existing relationships and expertise that position them for easy entry into the MMR business. Moreover, there are already several companies that handle the trademark licensing for schools, any of which could move into the MMR management business, as well; both IMG and Learfield already handle licensing for a number of schools. Most notably, Fermata Partners, founded in 2012 by former IMG employees and acquired in 2015 by CAA Sports (a division of Creative Artists Agency), has trademark licensing agreements with Georgia, Kentucky, Miami, Notre Dame, Oregon, Virginia, and Wisconsin. It could easily expand into selling MMR rights for these and other schools. Other licensing firms like Exemplar (which handles licensing at Columbia) and 289c (which handles licensing at Texas and Ohio State) could also easily expand into MMR.

Given the relatively trivial economies of scale, the minimum viable scale for a new entrant appears to be approximately one school — a size that each school’s in-house operations, of course, automatically meets. Moreover, the Peak Sports, Fenway, and Tampa Bay Lightning examples suggest that there may be particular benefits to local, regional, or category specialization, suggesting that innovative, new entry is not only possible, but even likely, as the business continues to evolve.

Conclusion

A merger between IMG and Learfield should not raise any antitrust issues. College sports is a small slice of the total advertising market. Even a so-called “juggernaut” in college sports multimedia rights is a small bit in the broader market of multimedia marketing.

The demonstrated entry of new competitors and the transitions of schools from one provider to another or to bringing MMR management in-house, indicates that no competitor has any measurable market power that can disadvantage schools or advertisers.

The term “juggernaut” entered the English language because of misinterpretation and exaggeration of actual events. Fears of the IMG/Learfield merger crushing competition is similarly based on a misinterpretation of two-sided markets and misunderstanding of the reality of the of the market for college multimedia rights management. Importantly, the case is also a cautionary tale for those who would identify narrow, contract-, channel-, or platform-specific relevant markets in circumstances where a range of intermediaries and direct relationships can compete to offer the same service as those being scrutinized. Antitrust advocates have a long and inglorious history of defining markets by channels of distribution or other convenient, yet often economically inappropriate, combinations of firms or products. Yet the presence of marketing or other intermediaries does not automatically transform a basic, commercial relationship into a novel, two-sided market necessitating narrow market definitions and creative economics.

On September 30, in O’Bannon v. NCAA, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit held that the National Collegiate Athletic Association’s (NCAA) rules that prohibited student athletes from being paid for the use of their names, images, and likenesses are subject to the antitrust laws and constitute an unlawful restraint of trade, under the antitrust rule of reason. This landmark holding represents the first federal appellate condemnation of NCAA limitations on compensating student athletes. (In two previous Truth on the Market posts I discussed this lawsuit and later explained that I agreed with the federal district court’s decision striking down these NCAA rules.) The gist of the 9th Circuit’s opinion is summarized by the Court’s staff:

The [9th Circuit] panel held that it was not precluded from reaching the merits of plaintiffs’ Sherman Act claim because: (1) the Supreme Court did not hold in NCAA v. Bd. of Regents of the Univ. of Okla., 468 U.S. 85 (1984), that the NCAA’s amateurism rules are valid as a matter of law; (2) the rules are subject to the Sherman Act because they regulate commercial activity; and (3) the plaintiffs established that they suffered injury in fact, and therefore had standing, by showing that, absent the NCAA’s rules, video game makers would likely pay them for the right to use their names, images, and likenesses in college sports video games.

The panel held that even though many of the NCAA’s rules were likely to be procompetitive, they were not exempt from antitrust scrutiny and must be analyzed under the Rule of Reason. Applying the Rule of Reason, the panel held that the NCAA’s rules had significant anticompetitive effects within the college education market, in that they fixed an aspect of the “price” that recruits pay to attend college. The record supported the district court’s finding that the rules served the procompetitive purposes of integrating academics with athletics and preserving the popularity of the NCAA’s product by promoting its current understanding of amateurism. The panel concluded that the district court identified one proper less restrictive alternative to the current NCAA rules – i.e., allowing NCAA members to give scholarships up to the full cost of attendance – but the district court’s other remedy, allowing students to be paid cash compensation of up to $5,000 per year, was erroneous. The panel vacated the district court’s judgment and permanent injunction insofar as they required the NCAA to allow its member schools to pay student-athletes up to $5,000 per year in deferred compensation.

Chief Judge Thomas concurred in part and dissented in part. He disagreed with the [two judge panel] majority’s conclusion that the district court clearly erred in ordering the NCAA to permit up to $5,000 in deferred compensation above student-athletes’ full cost of attendance.

The key point of the 9th Circuit’s decision, that competitively restrictive rules are not exempt from antitrust scrutiny because they promote the perception of “amateurism,” is clearly correct, and in line with modern antitrust jurisprudence. The Supreme Court has taught that anticompetitive restrictions aimed at furthering the reputation of the learned professions (see Goldfarb v. Virginia State Bar (1975), striking down a minimum legal fee schedule for title searches), and their ability to advance social goals effectively (see FTC v. Superior Court Trial Lawyers Association (1990), condemning a joint effort to raise government-paid legal aid fees and thereby “enhance” the quality of legal aid representation), are fully subject to antitrust review. Even the alleged desire to ensure that quality medical services are not sacrificed (see FTC v. Indiana Federation of Dentists (1986), rejecting a dental association’s agreement to deny insurers’ request for procedure-specific dental x-rays), and that safety is maintained in major construction projects (see National Society of Professional Engineers v. United States (1978), striking down an ethical canon barring competitive bids for engineering services), do not shield agreements from antitrust evaluation and potential condemnation. In light of those teachings, the NCAA’s claim (based on a clear misreading of the Supreme Court’s NCAA v. Board of Regents (1984) decision) that its highly restrictive “amateurism” rules should be exempt from antitrust review is patently absurd.

Moreover, as a matter of substance, the NCAA is precisely the sort of institution whose rules merit close evaluation by antitrust enforcers. The NCAA is a monopsony cartel, representing the institutions (America’s colleges) which effectively are the sole buyers of the services of high school football and basketball players who hope to pursue professional sports careers. Moreover, the NCAA’s rules regarding student athletes greatly limit competition, artificially limit athletes’ compensation, and are in severe tension with the “scholar-athlete” ideal that the NCAA claims it promotes. In 2011, the late University of Chicago Professor Gary Becker, a Nobel Laureate in Economics, put it starkly:

[T]he NCAA sharply limits the number of athletic scholarships, and even more importantly, limits the size of the scholarships that schools can offer the best players. NCAA rules also severely restricts the gifts and housing players are allowed to receive from alumni and others, do not allow college players to receive pay for playing for professional teams during summers or even before they attended college, and limits what they can be paid for non-playing summer work. The rules are extremely complicated, and they constitute hundreds of pages that lay out what is permitted in recruiting prospective students, when students have to make binding commitments to attend schools, the need to renew athletic scholarships, the assistance that can be provided to players’ parents, and of course the size of scholarships.

It is impossible for an outsider to look at these rules without concluding that their main aim is to make the NCAA an effective cartel that severely constrains competition among schools for players. The NCAA defends these rules by claiming that their main purpose is to prevent exploitation of student-athletes, to provide a more equitable system of recruitment that enables many colleges to maintain football and basketball programs and actively search for athletes, and to insure that the athletes become students as well as athletes. Unfortunately for the NCAA, the facts are blatantly inconsistent with these defenses. . . .
A large fraction of the Division I players in basketball and football, the two big money sports, are recruited from poor families; many of them are African-Americans from inner cities and rural areas. Every restriction on the size of scholarships that can be given to athletes in these sports usually takes money away from poor athletes and their families, and in effect transfers these resources to richer students in the form of lower tuition and cheaper tickets for games. . . .

[T]he graduation rates for these minority students-athletes are depressingly low. For example, the average graduation rate of Division I African American basketball and football players appears to be less than 50%.

Some of the top players quit school to play in the NBA or NFL, but that is a tiny fraction of all athletes who dropout. The vast majority dropout either because they use up their sports eligibility before they completed the required number of classes, or they failed to continue to make the teams. Schools usually forget about athletes when they stop competing. An important further difference between athletes and non-athletes who drop out of school is that athletes would have been able to get much better financial support for themselves and their families but for the NCAA restrictions on compensation to athletes. They could have used these additional assets to help them finish school, or to get a better start if they dropped out.

Also in 2011, Judge Richard Posner of the 7th Circuit echoed Professor Becker’s views regarding NCAA student competition rules and noted the NCAA’s history of avoiding antitrust problems:

The National Collegiate Athletic Association behaves monopsonistically in forbidding its member colleges and universities to pay its athletes. Although cartels, including monopsonistic ones, are generally deemed to be illegal per se under American antitrust law, the NCAA’s monopsonistic behavior has thus far not been successfully challenged. The justification that the NCAA offers – that collegiate athletes are students and would be corrupted by being salaried – coupled with the fact that the members of the NCAA, and the NCAA itself, are formally not-for-profit institutions, have had sufficient appeal to enable the association to continue to impose and enforce its rule against paying student athletes, and a number of subsidiary rules designed to prevent the cheating by cartel members that plagues most cartels.

As Becker points out, were it not for the monopsonistic rule against paying student athletes, these athletes would be paid; the monopsony transfers wealth from them to their “employers,” the colleges. A further consequence is that college teams are smaller and, more important, of lower quality than they would be if the student athletes were paid.

In sum, the 9th Circuit O’Bannon Court merits praise for deciding clearly and unequivocally that antitrust applies to the NCAA’s student athlete rules, irrespective of whether one agrees with the specific holding in the case. The antitrust laws are a “consumer welfare prescription” that applies generally to activities that have an impact on interstate commerce, and short shrift should be given to any institution that claims it should be antitrust-exempt based on the alleged “virtue” or “public-spiritedness” of its actions. (This reasoning also supports the lifting of baseball’s antitrust exemption, which stems from a 1922 Supreme Court decision that is out of step with modern antitrust jurisprudence. But that is a matter for another day.)

In a June 12, 2014 TOTM post, I discussed the private antitrust challenge to NCAA rules that barred NCAA member universities from compensating athletes for use of their images and names in television broadcasts and video games.

On August 8 a federal district judge held that the NCAA had violated the antitrust laws and enjoined the NCAA from enforcing those rules, effective 2016.  The judge’s 99-page opinion, which discusses NCAA price-fixing agreements, is worth a read.  It confronts and debunks the NCAA’s efficiency justifications for their cartel-like restrictions on athletic scholarships.  If the decision withstands appeal, it will allow  NCAA member schools to offer prospective football and basketball recruits trust funds that could be accessed after graduation (subject to certain limitations), granting those athletes a share of the billions of dollars in revenues they generate for NCAA member universities.

A large number of NCAA rules undoubtedly generate substantial efficiencies that benefit NCAA  member institutions, college sports fans, and college athletes.  But the beneficial nature of those rules does not justify separate monopsony price fixing arrangements that disadvantage athletic recruits – arrangements that cannot legitimately be tied to the NCAA’s welfare-enhancing interest in promoting intercollegiate athletics.  Stay tuned.

By William Kolasky

In my view, the Second Circuit’s decision in Apple e-Books, if not reversed by the Supreme Court, threatens to undo a half century of progress in reforming antitrust doctrine. In decision after decision, from White Motors through Leegin and Actavis, the Supreme Court has repeatedly held—in cases involving both horizontal and vertical restraints—that the only test for whether an agreement can be found per se unlawful under Section 1 is whether it is “a naked [restraint] of trade with no purpose except stifling competition,” or whether it is instead “ancillary to the legitimate and competitive purposes” of a business association. Dagher. The cases in which the Court has consistently applied this test read like a litany of antitrust decisions we all now study in law school: White Motors, Topco, GTE Sylvania, Professional Engineers, BMI, Maricopa, NCAA, Business Electronics, ARCO, California Dental, Dagher, Leegin, American Needle, and, most recently, Actavis. Significantly, more than two-thirds of these cases involved horizontal, not vertical restraints.

In these decisions, the Court has also repeatedly warned that this test cannot be applied by simply asking whether the defendants “have literally ‘fixed’ a ‘price,” or otherwise agreed not to compete. Warning that “[l]iteralness is overly simplistic and often overbroad,” the Court insisted in BMI that courts instead focus on “the effect and, because it tends to show effect…, on the purpose of the practice” to determine whether “the practice facially appears to be one that would always or almost always tend to restrict competition and decrease output… or instead one designed to ‘increase economic efficiency and render markets more, rather than less, competitive.”

In applying this test the Court has also repeatedly emphasized that a court should classify an alleged restraint—whether horizontal or vertical—as per se unlawful “only after considerable experience” with the particular restraint at issue. In addition, the Court has repeatedly emphasized that all that is necessary for a restraint to escape per se illegality is that there be a “plausible” procompetitive purpose behind it. See, e.g., Cal Dental; Business Electronics; Northwest Wholesale Stationers.

By focusing so much attention in their cert. papers on whether the agreements between Apple and the publishers should be characterized as “vertical” or “horizontal,” both Apple and the DOJ seem to have lost sight of the fundamental teachings of this long line of Supreme Court decisions—namely, that even if an agreement is horizontal, it can be found to be per se unlawful only if it is a naked agreement that, on its face, serves no purpose other than to restrict competition and restrain output. This is particularly important where, as in this case, the alleged agreements have both horizontal and vertical elements. In such cases, the right question is not whether the agreements can be labeled a “hub-and-spoke conspiracy,” but instead what the nature and purpose of those agreements were.

In this case, the nature of the arrangement between Apple and the publishers by which they all appointed Apple as their common sales agent is not fundamentally different from the an agreement among a group of competitors to appoint a joint sales agent. While such an arrangement can, in some circumstances, be used to facilitate cartel behavior, it can also serve legitimate pro-competitive purposes by enabling those competitors to market their goods or services more efficiently. The courts and antitrust enforcement agencies have, therefore, recognized—ever since the Supreme Court’s decision in Appalachian Coals—that these joint sales arrangements must generally be evaluated under the rule of reason and cannot in all instances be condemned as per se unlawful. See, e.g., FTC/DOJ, Competitor Collaboration Guidelines(For those of you who remember the criticisms that used to be directed at that decision by your antitrust professor in law school, I urge you to read Sheldon Kimmel’s excellent revisionist article, How and Why the Per Se Rule Against Price Fixing Went Wrong, showing that the Court’s holding was perfectly consistent with its more recent rulings in BMI and its progeny.

Viewing this as an agreement among the publishers to appoint Apple as their common sales agent might have helped the lower courts to have focused on what should have been the key issues in the case. The first is whether the agency arrangement was a “naked” agreement to “restrict competition and decrease output,” or could “plausibly” have been intended to serve other legitimate pro-competitive business purposes. The second is whether, if so, the restraints that were part of this arrangement—such as price caps and most-favored nation clauses—were ancillary to those legitimate purposes.

Based on the record as I read it, it appears to me that the answers to these two questions are obvious, and that they compel the conclusion that this common sales agent arrangement could not be classified as per se unlawful, but would need to be evaluated under a full-blown rule of reason analysis. Let me address each issue in turn.

Was the common sales agent arrangement between Apple and the five publishers a naked agreement to fix prices and restrict output?

Neither the lower courts nor the parties in their cert papers address this key issue in any detail, choosing instead to spend page after page debating whether the agreement between Apple and the publishers was horizontal or vertical. Fortunately, the amicus briefs that were filed in support of Apple’s cert. petition by ICLE and by a group of antitrust economists do address the issue at considerable length.

Those briefs make a convincing argument that the common sale agent arrangements between the publishers and Apple were designed to serve at least two pro-competitive purposes. The first was to introduce greater competition into the downstream market for the distribution of e-books by ending Amazon’s below-cost pricing of e-books at the retail level. The second was to give the publishers greater control over the downstream pricing of their e-books in order to prevent below-cost pricing of e-books from cannibalizing the sales of their print books.

The common sale agent arrangement served to introduce more competition into the downstream market for the distribution of e-books

This one is easy. No one disputes that before Apple entered, Amazon dominated the downstream market for e-books with a 90% market share, giving it a virtual monopoly. Hopefully, few, if any, would dispute that Amazon’s loss-leader strategy of selling e-books at well below cost served to entrench its near monopoly position in that market. It is easy to understand why publishers of e-books would not want to allow Amazon’s monopoly to continue, leaving them with only a sole distributor for their products.

The record below makes it clear that Apple did not believe it could profitably enter the e-book market so long as Amazon continued to maintain its first-mover advantage by selling e-books below cost. Apple and the publishers therefore had a common interest in moving from the existing wholesale model of e-book distribution to a new agency model under which the publishers, not Amazon, would control the retail pricing of e-books and could set those prices at a level that would enable other competitors, such as Apple, to enter. That seems pro-competitive to me.

The record also makes it clear that this objective could not be accomplished through a simple vertical agency agreement between Apple and one or two individual publishers. In order to enter successfully, Apple needed a critical mass of titles, which it could have only by securing the agreement of most of the leading publishers to appoint it as their common sale agent. Apple, therefore, had a legitimate pro-competitive business reason to facilitate—or, as the Second Circuit charged, “orchestrate” —agreements among the publishers to switch to an agency model and to appoint Apple as their common non-exclusive agent for the sale of their e-books.

The common sales agent arrangement gave the publishers control over the retail prices of e-books, protecting them from harms to their businesses that could otherwise be caused by below-cost pricing by a single dominant retailer.

The Second Circuit and DOJ both make much of the fact that the publishers wanted to control the retail prices of e-books in order to raise those prices above the level set by Amazon’s loss-leader pricing strategy. They both seem to believe that this alone is enough to characterize their conduct as a “naked price fixing scheme.” But it is not. As the Supreme Court held in Leegin, resale price maintenance can be pro-competitive even if it leads to higher prices if it is designed promote competition by creating a more efficient and competitive distribution system.

As Areeda and Hovenkamp teach in their treatise, Fundamentals of Antitrust Law, the same principle applies to agreements among a group of horizontal competitors to appoint a single sales agent. Those competitors will frequently “have to agree with each other that they will not accept less than a certain minimum price, or sometimes may even have to agree on the entire price schedule,” and these prices may sometimes be higher than the prices at which they were previously selling the products individually. See Areeda & Hovenkamp (2015 Supp.), at 19:31-32. But even if these agreements result in an increase in price, they argue that it should not be found illegal if the effect on output is positive. Their argument is supported by the language in BMI, in which the Court focused on the effect of a restraint on output, not price, in describing what was necessary to classify an alleged restraint as a per se illegal naked price-fixing agreement.

Here, although the district court found that prices went up and output went down in the short run after the publishers switched from their wholesale model to an agency model, these immediate, short-term effects do not necessarily show that the switch to the new agency model might not, over the long-term, have resulted in an increase in output. DOJ concedes that since Apple’s entry, e-book sales have grown exponentially, but speculates that this growth might have occurred even if Amazon had continued to maintain its monopoly position in the retail sale of e-books. As someone who reads e-books on my iPad, I doubt that, but this is the type of issue that can only be resolved through a full rule-of-reason analysis, not through the application of a conclusive presumption of illegality under the per se doctrine.

Here, as the amicus briefs argue, there are several ways Amazon’s loss-leader pricing strategy could have depressed the output of both e-book and print books long-term. First, of course, once its monopoly was fully entrenched, Amazon could have sought to recoup its losses by raising its e-book prices above a competitive level. Second, if instead Amazon continued to cannibalize print sales through below-cost e-book pricing, publishers might have been forced to reduce the royalties they pay authors, giving those authors less reason to continue writing, thus reducing the output of all books. Again, these are the types of issues that require a full rule of reason analysis, not summary condemnation under the per se doctrine.

Were the price caps and most-favored nation clauses ancillary restraints that may have been reasonably necessary to the legitimate pro-competitive purposes of the common sales agent arrangement?

The ancillary nature of the terms that were included in Apple’s agency agreements with the publishers, and which the publishers may have agreed among themselves to accept, is equally easy to show.

The price caps on which Apple insisted were obviously designed to protect it from opportunistic behavior by the publishers in charging higher prices for their e-books than what Apple felt the market would accept, thereby preventing it from selling a sufficient volume of e-books to make its entry successful. Such opportunistic behavior by the publishers could also have made it harder to convince consumers to buy Apple’s new iPad, the success of which was critical to its future.

The most favored nation clauses on which Apple insisted, and which the publishers may also have agreed among themselves to accept, were likewise arguably necessary to protect Apple from the risk of having to compete against an established competitor offering lower prices than it could, thereby impeding its successful entry and damaging its goodwill with consumers.

In both cases, these are classic and legitimate reasons for ancillary restraints. Whether or not these particular restraints were reasonably necessary to Apple’s successful entry is a question that could only be decided on the basis of a full rule of reason analysis. All that is needed to avoid per se condemnation is that there be a plausible argument that they were, and that, again, should be something that no one could dispute.

* * *

Given the way the case was litigated, I recognize that it may be difficult to introduce at the Supreme Court level a whole new way of looking at the facts of the case. But if the Court does grant cert., I would hope that Apple and the amici supporting it would try to refocus the Court’s attention away from a sterile argument over whether the restraints in question were vertical or horizontal, and to focus it instead on whether they were a “naked” attempt to fix prices and restrict output or were instead ancillary to a pro-competitive business relationship.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The National Collegiate Athletic Association’s (NCAA’s) longstanding cartel-like arrangements once again are facing serious legal scrutiny.  On June 9 a federal antitrust trial opened in Oakland featuring college athletes’ attempt to enjoin the NCAA from exploiting the athletes’ names, images, and likenesses (“rights of publicity”) for profitRights of publicity are a well-recognized form of intellectual property.  Although the factual details concerning the means by which NCAA institutions may have extracted those rights (for example, from signed waivers that may have been required as a condition for receipt of athletic scholarships) remain to be developed, a concerted NCAA effort to exploit the athletes’ IP, if proven, would be highly anticompetitive.  Consistent with the TOTM tradition of highlighting challenges to NCAA competitive arrangements, let’s look at what’s at stake.

The NCAA is involved in major sports-related revenue-producing projects with its corporate partners, such as Electronic Arts (EA), a $4 billion company that produces video games.  The money is big – EA’s NCAA Football game alone is reported to bring in over $200 million a year in gross revenues.  Although the NCAA has denied using player likenesses in video games, the creators of the NCAA Football series have indicated that actual athletes’ jersey numbers and attributes are used, a fact apparently known to NCAA executives.  Moreover, recent separate $20 million and $40 million settlements agreed to by the NCAA and EA in suits brought by college athletes provide additional indications that the NCAA may be aware that it has exploited college players’ rights of publicity.

So what is the antitrust angle?  In dealing with student athletes, the NCAA, which represents the interests of its member colleges, acts like a monopsony cartel, as Judge Posner has noted, and as Blair and Harrison have explained in detail.  Anticompetitive monopsony buyer agreements have long been struck down by the courts as Sherman Act violations, as in Mandeville Farms and in National Macaroni Manufacturers v. FTC, and occasionally have been the subject of criminal prosecution.

This does not necessarily mean, however, that all restrictions the NCAA places on student athletes run afoul of the antitrust laws.  As the Supreme Court made clear in the 1984 NCAA case, the federal antitrust laws apply to the NCAA, but competitive restraints may pass muster if they are justifiable means of fostering competition among amateur athletic teams, such as uniform rules defining the conditions of a sports contest, the eligibility of participants, or the sharing of responsibilities and benefits integral to the NCAA’s joint venture.

Like the anticompetitive restrictions on member colleges’ separate television contracts struck down by the Supreme Court in NCAA, however, the NCAA’s profiting from student athletes’ rights of publicity is not vital to the preservation of balanced collegiate amateur competition.   Likewise, it is not needed to avoid the payment of student salaries that some might argue smacks of disfavored “professionalism” (although others would argue it promotes healthy competition and avoids exploitation of athletes).  In contrast, a policy of vindicating athletes’ right of publicity enables them to capture the value of the intellectual property generated by their accomplishments, and thus incentivizes outstanding athletic achievements, consistent with the legitimate ends of NCAA competitions.  Proof of a concerted effort by the NCAA to deny this benefit to student athletes and instead to share the IP-generated proceeds only with member institutions would, if shown, appear to lack any cognizable efficiency justification, and thus be ripe for antitrust condemnation.

Whatever the outcome of the current rights of publicity litigation, the NCAA may expect to face antitrust scrutiny on a number of fronts.  This is as it should be.  While the organization clearly yields efficiencies that benefit consumers (such as establishing and overseeing rules and standards for many collegiate sports), its inherent temptation to act as a classic cartel for the financial benefit of its members will not disappear.  Indeed, its incentive to seek monopoly profits may rise, as the money generated by organized athletics and related entertainment offshoots continues to grow.  Accordingly, antitrust enforcers should remain vigilant, and efforts to obtain NCAA-specific statutory antitrust exemptions, even if well-meaning, should be resisted.

Michael McCann (Vermont, CNNSI) has a very interesting column on developments in Ed O’Bannon’s lawsuit against the NCAA.   O’Bannon is challenging the NCAA’s licensing of the names, images and likenesses of former Division I college athletes for commercial purposes without compensation or consent.  McCann discusses the implications of O’Bannon’s motion to expand the class to include current players:

The prospect of O’Bannon v. NCAA radically reshaping college sports is real. If O’Bannon ultimately prevails, “student-athletes” and “amateurism” would take on new meanings in the context of D-I sports. While college athletes would still not obtain compensation for their labor, they would be compensated for the licensing of their identity. If O’Bannon instead extracts a favorable settlement from the NCAA, these athletes would likely be compensated as well.

Still, it’s early in the litigation process and, besides, the NCAA has a good record in court. The NCAA is sure to raise concerns about the new world of D-I college sports as envisioned by O’Bannon. For one, how a fund for current student-athletes is distributed and how former student-athletes are compensated will spark questions. Should star players get more? Would Title IX be implicated if male student-athletes receive more licensing revenue because they might generate more revenue than female student-athletes? Also expect some colleges and universities to bemoan that they cannot afford to contribute to player trusts unless they eliminate most of their teams and give pay cuts to coaches and staff. Along those lines, schools with large endowments or those with high revenue-generating teams may only become “richer” in a college sports world where certain schools have the financial wherewithal to compensate student-athletes while others do not.

Go read the whole thing.

 

 

Meese on Bork (and the AALS)

Thom Lambert —  22 December 2012

William & Mary’s Alan Meese has posted a terrific tribute to Robert Bork, who passed away this week.  Most of the major obituaries, Alan observes, have largely ignored the key role
Bork played in rationalizing antitrust, a body of law that veered sharply off course in the middle of the last century.  Indeed, Bork began his 1978 book, The Antitrust Paradox, by comparing the then-prevailing antitrust regime to the sheriff of a frontier town:  “He did not sift the evidence, distinguish between suspects, and solve crimes, but merely walked the main street and every so often pistol-whipped a few people.”  Bork went on to explain how antitrust, if focused on consumer welfare (which equated with allocative efficiency), could be reconceived in a coherent fashion.

It is difficult to overstate the significance of Bork’s book and his earlier writings on which it was based.  Chastened by Bork’s observations, the Supreme Court began correcting its antitrust mistakes in the mid-1970s.  The trend began with the 1977 Sylvania decision, which overruled a precedent making it per se illegal for manufacturers to restrict the territories in which their dealers could operate.  (Manufacturers seeking to enhance sales of their brand may wish to give dealers exclusive sales territories to protect them against “free-riding” on their demand-enhancing customer services; pre-Sylvania precedent made it hard for manufacturers to do this.)  Sylvania was followed by:

  • Professional Engineers (1978), which helpfully clarified that antitrust’s theretofore unwieldy “Rule of Reason” must be focused exclusively on competition;
  • Broadcast Music, Inc. (1979), which held that competitors’ price-tampering arrangements that reduce costs and enhance output may be legal;
  • NCAA (1984), which recognized that trade restraints among competitors may be necessary to create new products and services and thereby made it easier for competitors to enter into output-enhancing joint ventures;
  • Khan (1997), which abolished the ludicrous per se rule against maximum resale price maintenance;
  • Trinko (2004), which recognized that some monopoly pricing may aid consumers in the long run (by enhancing the incentive to innovate) and narrowly circumscribed the situations in which a firm has a duty to assist its rivals; and
  • Leegin (2007), which overruled a 96 year-old precedent declaring minimum resale price maintenance–a practice with numerous potential procompetitive benefits–to be per se illegal.

Bork’s fingerprints are all over these decisions.  Alan’s terrific post discusses several of them and provides further detail on Bork’s influence.

And while you’re checking out Alan’s Bork tribute, take a look at his recent post discussing my musings on the AALS hiring cartel.  Alan observes that AALS’s collusive tendencies reach beyond the lateral hiring context.  Who’d have guessed?

The U.S. Department of Justice sued eBay last week for agreeing not to poach employees from rival Intuit. According to the Department’s press release, “eBay’s agreement with Intuit hurt employees by lowering the salaries and benefits they might have received and deprived them of better job opportunities at the other company.” DOJ maintains that agreements among rivals not to compete for workers have long been deemed per se illegal. (Indeed, Google, Apple, Adobe, and Pixar quickly settled antitrust claims based on similar non-poaching arrangements in 2010.)

DOJ is right to attack this type of arrangement. Apart from harming individual employees, non-poaching agreements occasion a societal harm: They preclude labor resources from being channeled to their highest and best uses. To poach a competitor’s star employee, you must offer to pay that employee more than she’s currently making (or otherwise adjust the terms of her employment in a way she deems desirable). Her current employer will usually have a chance to counter your offer. If you win the bidding war, it’s likely because the current employer’s willingness-to-pay for the employee—an amount reflective of the degree by which the employee enhances her firm’s value—is less than yours. If you can derive more value from the employee, you should have her. When employers agree to limit competition for workers, they preclude labor resources from flowing to their highest and best ends, causing an “allocative inefficiency.”

So perhaps DOJ should go after the members of the Association of American Law Schools. Pursuant to a Statement of Good Practices to which AALS members scrupulously adhere, each law school has agreed to limit competition with its rivals by refraining from making lateral offers of employment after March 1 each year. Unlike the eBay/Intuit arrangement, the competing law schools’ trade restraint is applicable for only part of the year–from March 1 until the fall hiring season–but it has the same basic effect as the eBay arrangement. And, despite the law schools’ claims to the contrary, it isn’t justified on efficiency grounds.

By preventing law professors from credibly threatening to leave their existing employers after March 1, the AALS restraint significantly reduces professors’ ability to negotiate higher wages or more favorable employment terms. If you announce a competing school’s offer six weeks before fall classes start, you’re much more likely to receive an attractive counter-offer from your current employer than you would be if you sprang the news of your potential departure six months before the start of classes, when you’re more easily replaced. What’s more, law schools generally don’t tell professors what they’ll be earning the following year until after March 1, when it’s too late for a disgruntled professor to secure another offer elsewhere. The AALS restraint thus artificially depresses the salaries of a school’s most desirable professors.

Now this might not seem like something to get worked up over. Most people think law professors are a spoiled lot. They have relatively low teaching loads and, despite the fact that most lack PhDs, they generally earn a good deal more than most academics. Why should DOJ intervene on behalf of these fat cats? Because the law schools’ non-poaching arrangement diminishes the quality of legal education. Here’s why.

At most law schools, where equality of end-states tends to be fetishized, professors are generally compensated in lock-step according to seniority. There’s some variation, but apart from endowed positions, starting salaries and annual raises are around the same level for everyone.

Talent and effort, by contrast, are not evenly distributed. Most law schools have some super-stars who are exceptional teachers and scholars, a number of “solid” professors who put in their time and provide competent teaching and enough scholarship to stay engaged, and a fair bit of dead weight. Lock-step compensation depresses the incentive to move into the first category and enhances the attractiveness of the last. It’s favored by administrators, though, because it permits them to avoid awkward conversations about merit.

If late-in-time departures of professors were a real possibility, administrators would have a stronger incentive to keep their most productive folks happy. They could stand to lose teachers with low course enrollments, so they probably wouldn’t worry too much about keeping their salaries relatively high. They’d also know that their less productive scholars are unlikely to receive a late offer. But highly productive scholars who also provide lots of the thing the law school is ultimately selling–law teaching–would likely begin to earn higher salaries than their less valuable colleagues. With compensation more accurately reflecting the value professors provide, labor resources would be allocated more efficiently. And, of course, law professors would have an increased incentive to make themselves both “poachable” and indispensable by firing on all cylinders–teaching, scholarship, and service.

But don’t the law schools need their non-poaching arrangement in order to prevent scheduling disorder that would hurt students? That’s certainly what they claim. The “Statement of Good Practices” memorializing the law schools’ collusive agreement begins:

[T]he departure of a full-time law teacher always requires changes at the law school. Unless the school is given sufficient time to make the necessary arrangements to find another to offer the instruction given by the departing teacher, the reasonable expectations of students will be  frustrated and the school’s educational program otherwise disrupted. To serve  the best interests of the program of legal education from which the teacher is departing and that to which she or he may be going, the Association urges that law schools and law faculty members follow these suggested practices….

A horizontal restraint of trade, though, isn’t necessary to prevent the sort of harm the law schools envision. If a law school believes it needs some amount of lead time to prepare for a professor’s departure, it may unilaterally negotiate contracts with its professors obligating them to provide a certain amount of notice before any departure and specifying liquidated damages for breach. Unlike the “one-size-fits-all” AALS restraint, such contracts could accommodate heterogeneous needs and preferences. For example, required lead times and the amount of liquidated damages could vary based on the location of the school (urban with lots of adjunct possibilities vs. rural with few), the degree to which the professor’s course offerings require a specialized background (Securities Regulation vs. Contracts), and the pedagogical importance of the courses (Business Organizations vs. Law & Literature). Moreover, this contractarian approach, unlike the AALS’s horizontal restraint, would further allocative efficiency across law schools: If Raider Law is willing to pay Target Law’s hot professor an amount that will increase her salary and cover the liquidated damages she owes Target because of an untimely departure, then Raider must value her more than Target and should get her. Thus, it is possible to achieve the practical benefit the AALS restraint purports to pursue without using a horizontal restraint and in a manner that permits allocative efficiency.

A horizontal agreement not to compete should not be allowed to stand when a less restrictive, easily achieved vertical option could secure the retraint’s benefits. See, e.g., Maricopa County Med. Soc’y (condemning an efficiency-enhancing maximum price-fixing agreement among physicians and observing that the procompetitive benefit occasioned by the restraint could be achieved via vertical agreements rather than a horizontal restraint); NCAA (refusing to allow the need for competitive balance to immunize a naked horizontal restraint because such balance could be achieved less restrictively); cf. Professional Engineers (horizontal agreement not to engage in price negotiations in order to assure high-quality engineering illegal when substantive quality standards could achieve same result).

Perhaps one day the DOJ will acknowledge that American law schools are competitors and, for the benefit of law students and the legal profession, ought to act like it.