Archives For two-sided markets

Excess is unflattering, no less when claiming that every evolution in legal doctrine is a slippery slope leading to damnation. In Friday’s New York Times, Lina Khan trots down this alarmist path while considering the implications for the pending Supreme Court case of Ohio v. American Express. One of the core issues in the case is the proper mode of antitrust analysis for credit card networks as two-sided markets. The Second Circuit Court of Appeals agreed with arguments, such as those that we have made, that it is important to consider the costs and benefits to both sides of a two-sided market when conducting an antitrust analysis. The Second Circuit’s opinion is under review in the American Express case.

Khan regards the Second Circuit approach of conducting a complete analysis of these markets as a mistake.

On her reading, the idea that an antitrust analysis of credit card networks should reflect their two-sided-ness would create “de facto antitrust immunity” for all platforms:

If affirmed, the Second Circuit decision would create de facto antitrust immunity for the most powerful companies in the economy. Since internet technologies have enabled the growth of platform companies that serve multiple groups of users, firms like Alphabet, Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and Uber are set to be prime beneficiaries of the Second Circuit’s warped analysis. Amazon, for example, could claim status as a two-sided platform because it connects buyers and sellers of goods; Google because it facilitates a market between advertisers and search users… Indeed, the reason that the tech giants are lining up behind the Second Circuit’s approach is that — if ratified — it would make it vastly more difficult to use antitrust laws against them.

This paragraph is breathtaking. First, its basic premise is wrong. Requiring a complete analysis of the complicated economic effects of conduct undertaken in two sided markets before imposing antitrust liability would not create “de facto antitrust immunity.” It would require that litigants present, and courts evaluate, credible evidence sufficient to establish a claim upon which an enforcement action can be taken — just like in any other judicial proceeding in any area of law. Novel market structures may require novel analytical models and novel evidence, but that is no different with two-sided markets than with any other complicated issue before a court.

Second, the paragraph’s prescribed response would be, in fact, de facto antitrust liability for any firm competing in a two-sided market — that is, as Kahn notes, almost every major tech firm.

A two-sided platform competes with other platforms by facilitating interactions between the two sides of the market. This often requires a careful balancing of the market: in most of these markets too many or too few participants on one side of the market reduces participation on the other side. So these markets play the role of matchmaker, charging one side of the market a premium in order to cross-subsidize a desirable level of participation on the other. This will be discussed more below, but the takeaway for now is that most of these platforms operate by charging one side of the market (or some participants on one side of the market) an above-cost price in order to charge the other side of the market a below-cost price. A platform’s strategy on either side of the market makes no sense without the other, and it does not adopt practices on one side without carefully calibrating them with the other. If one does not consider both sides of these markets, therefore, the simplistic approach that Kahn demands will systematically fail to capture both the intent and the effect of business practices in these markets. More importantly, such an approach could be used to find antitrust violations throughout these industries — no matter the state of competition, market share, or actual consumer effects.

What are two-sided markets?

Khan notes that there is some element of two-sidedness in many (if not most) markets:

Indeed, almost all markets can be understood as having two sides. Firms ranging from airlines to meatpackers could reasonably argue that they meet the definition of “two-sided,” thereby securing less stringent review.

This is true, as far as it goes, as any sale of goods likely involves the selling party acting as some form of intermediary between chains of production and consumption. But such a definition is unworkably broad from the point of view of economic or antitrust analysis. If two-sided markets exist as distinct from traditional markets there must be salient features that define those specialized markets.

Economists have been intensively studying two-sided markets (see, e.g., here, here, and here) for the past two decades (and had recognized many of their basic characteristics even before then). As Khan notes, multi-sided platforms have indeed existed for a long time in the economy. Newspapers, for example, provide a targeted outlet for advertisers and incentives for subscribers to view advertisements; shopping malls aggregate retailers in one physical location to lower search costs for customers, while also increasing the retailers’ sales volume. Relevant here, credit card networks are two-sided platforms, facilitating credit-based transactions between merchants and consumers.

One critical feature of multi-sided platforms is the interdependent demand of platform participants. Thus, these markets require a simultaneous critical mass of users on each side in order to ensure the viability of the platform. For instance, a credit card is unlikely to be attractive to consumers if few merchants accept it; and few merchants will accept a credit card that isn’t used by a sufficiently large group of consumers. To achieve critical mass, a multi-sided platform uses both pricing and design choices, and, without critical mass on all sides, the positive feedback effects that enable the platform’s unique matching abilities might not be achieved.

This highlights the key distinction between traditional markets and multi-sided markets. Most markets have two sides (e.g., buyers and sellers), but that alone doesn’t make them meaningfully multi-sided. In a multi-sided market a key function of the platform is to facilitate the relationship between the sides of the market in order to create and maintain an efficient relationship between them. The platform isn’t merely a reseller of a manufacturer’s goods, for instance, but is actively encouraging or discouraging participation by users on both sides of the platform in order to maximize the value of the platform itself — not the underlying transaction — for those users. Consumers, for instance, don’t really care how many pairs of jeans a clothier stocks; but a merchant does care how many cardholders an issuer has on its network. This is most often accomplished by using prices charged to each side (in the case of credit cards, so-called interchange fees) to keep each side an appropriate size.

Moreover, the pricing that occurs on a two-sided platform is secondary, to a varying extent, to the pricing of the subject of the transaction. In a two-sided market, the prices charged to either side of the market are an expression of the platform’s ability to control the terms on which the different sides meet to transact and is relatively indifferent to the thing about which the parties are transacting.

The nature of two-sided markets highlights the role of these markets as more like facilitators of transactions and less like traditional retailers of goods (though this distinction is a matter of degree, and different two-sided markets can be more-or-less two-sided). Because the platform uses prices charged to each side of the market in order to optimize overall use of the platform (that is, output or volume of transactions), pricing in these markets operates differently than pricing in traditional markets. In short, the pricing on one side of the platform is often used to subsidize participation on the other side of the market, because the overall value to both sides is increased as a result. Or, conversely, pricing to one side of the market may appear to be higher than the equilibrium level when viewed for that side alone, because this funds a subsidy to increase participation on another side of the market that, in turn, creates valuable network effects for the side of the market facing the higher fees.

The result of this dynamic is that it is more difficult to assess the price and output effects in multi-sided markets than in traditional markets. One cannot look at just one side of the platform — at the level of output and price charged to consumers of the underlying product, say — but must look at the combined pricing and output of both the underlying transaction as well as the platform’s service itself, across all sides of the platform.

Thus, as David Evans and Richard Schmalensee have observed, traditional antitrust reasoning is made more complicated in the presence of a multi-sided market:

[I]t is not possible to know whether standard economic models, often relied on for antitrust analysis, apply to multi-sided platforms without explicitly considering the existence of multiple customer groups with interdependent demand…. [A] number of results for single-sided firms, which are the focus of much of the applied antitrust economics literature, do not apply directly to multi-sided platforms.

The good news is that antitrust economists have been focusing significant attention on two- and multi-sided markets for a long while. Their work has included attention to modelling the dynamics and effects of competition in these markets, including how to think about traditional antitrust concepts such as market definition, market power and welfare analysis. What has been lacking, however, has been substantial incorporation of this analysis into judicial decisions. Indeed, this is one of the reasons that the Second Circuit’s opinion in this case was, and why the Supreme Court’s opinion will be, so important: this work has reached the point that courts are recognizing that these markets can and should be analyzed differently than traditional markets.

Getting the two-sided analysis wrong in American Express would harm consumers

Khan describes credit card networks as a “classic case of oligopoly,” and opines that American Express’s contractual anti-steering provision is, “[a]s one might expect, the credit card companies us[ing] their power to block competition.” The initial, inherent tension in this statement should be obvious: the assertion is simultaneously that this a non-competitive, oligopolistic market and that American Express is using the anti-steering provision to harm its competitors. Indeed, rather than demonstrating a classic case of oligopoly, this demonstrates the competitive purpose that the anti-steering provision serves: facilitating competition between American Express and other card issuers.

The reality of American Express’s anti-steering provision, which prohibits merchants who choose to accept AmEx cards from “steering” their customers to pay for purchases with other cards, is that it is necessary in order for American Express to compete with other card issuers. Just like analysis of multi-sided markets needs to consider all sides of the market, platforms competing in these markets need to compete on all sides of the market.

But the use of complex pricing schemes to determine prices on each side of the market to maintain an appropriate volume of transactions in the overall market creates a unique opportunity for competitors to behave opportunistically. For instance, if one platform charges a high fee to one side of the market in order to subsidize another side of the market (say, by offering generous rewards), this creates an opportunity for a savvy competitor to undermine that balancing by charging the first side of the market a lower fee, thus attracting consumers from its competitor and, perhaps, making its pricing strategy unprofitable. This may appear to be mere price competition. But the effects of price competition on one side of a multi-sided market are more complicated to evaluate than those of traditional price competition.

Generally, price competition has the effect of lowering prices for goods, increasing output, decreasing deadweight losses, and benefiting consumers. But in a multi-sided market, the high prices charged to one side of the market can be used to benefit consumers on the other side of the market; and that consumer benefit can increase output on that side of the market in ways that create benefits for the first side of the market. When a competitor poaches a platform’s business on a single side of a multi-sided market, the effects can be negative for users on every side of that platform’s market.

This is most often seen in cases, like with credit cards, where platforms offer differentiated products. American Express credit cards are qualitatively different than Visa and Mastercard credit cards; they charge more (to both sides of the market) but offer consumers a more expansive rewards program (funded by the higher transaction fees charged to merchants) and offer merchants access to what are often higher-value customers (ensured by the higher fees charged to card holders).

If American Express did not require merchants to abide by its anti-steering rule, it wouldn’t be able to offer this form of differentiated product; it would instead be required to compete solely on price. Cardholders exist who prefer higher-status cards with a higher-tier of benefits, and there are merchants that prefer to attract a higher-value pool of customers.

But without the anti-steering provisions, the only competition available is on the price to merchants. The anti-steering rule is needed in order to prevent merchants from free-riding on American Express’s investment in attracting a unique group of card holders to its platform. American Express maintains that differentiation from other cards by providing its card holders with unique and valuable benefits — benefits that are subsidized in part by the fees charged to merchants. But merchants that attract customers by advertising that they accept American Express cards but who then steer those customers to other cards erode the basis of American Express’s product differentiation. Because of the interdependence of both sides of the platform, this ends up undermining the value that consumers receive from the platform as American Express ultimately withdraws consumer-side benefits. In the end, the merchants who valued American Express in the first place are made worse off by virtue of being permitted to selectively free-ride on American Express’s network investment.

At this point it is important to note that many merchants continue to accept American Express cards in light of both the cards’ higher merchant fees and these anti-steering provisions. Meanwhile, Visa and Mastercard have much larger market shares, and many merchants do not accept Amex. The fact that merchants who may be irritated by the anti-steering provision continue to accept Amex despite it being more costly, and the fact that they could readily drop Amex and rely on other, larger, and cheaper networks, suggests that American Express creates real value for these merchants. In other words, American Express, in fact, must offer merchants access to a group of consumers who are qualitatively different from those who use Visa or Mastercard cards — and access to this group of consumers must be valuable to those merchants.

An important irony in this case is that those who criticize American Express’s practices, who are arguing these practices limit price competition and that merchants should be able to steer customers to lower-fee cards, generally also argue that modern antitrust law focuses too myopically on prices and fails to account for competition over product quality. But that is precisely what American Express is trying to do: in exchange for a higher price it offers a higher quality card for consumers, and access to a different quality of consumers for merchants.

Anticompetitive conduct here, there, everywhere! Or nowhere.

The good news is that many on the court — and, for that matter, even Ohio’s own attorney — recognize that the effects of the anti-steering rule on the cardholder side of the market need to be considered alongside their effects on merchants:

JUSTICE KENNEDY: Does output include premiums or rewards to customers?
MR. MURPHY: Yeah. Output would include quality considerations as well.

The bad news is that several justices don’t seem to get it. Justice Kagan, for instance, suggested that “the effect of these anti-steering provisions means a market where we will only have high-cost/high-service products.” Justice Kagan’s assertion reveals the hubris of the would-be regulator, bringing to her evaluation of the market a preconception of what that market is supposed to look like. To wit: following her logic, one can say just as much that without the anti-steering provisions we would have a market with only low-cost/low-service products. Without an evaluation of the relative effects — which is more complicated than simple intuition suggests, especially since one can always pay cash — there is no reason to say that either of these would be a better outcome.

The reality, however, is that it is possible for the market to support both high- and low-cost, and high- and low-service products. In fact, this is the market in which we live today. As Justice Gorsuch said, “American Express’s agreements don’t affect MasterCard or Visa’s opportunity to cut their fees … or to advertise that American Express’s are higher. There is room for all kinds of competition here.” Indeed, one doesn’t need to be particularly creative to come up with competitive strategies that other card issuers could adopt, from those that Justice Gorsuch suggests, to strategies where card issuers are, in fact, “forced” to accept higher fees, which they in turn use to attract more card holders to their networks, such as through sign-up bonuses or awards for American Express customers who use non-American Express cards at merchants who accept them.

A standard response to such proposals is “if that idea is so good, why isn’t the market already doing it?” An important part of the answer in this case is that MasterCard and Visa know that American Express relies on the anti-steering provision in order to maintain its product differentiation.

Visa and Mastercard were initially defendants in this case, as well, as they used similar rules to differentiate some of their products. It’s telling that these larger market participants settled because, to some extent, harming American Express is worth more to them than their own product differentiation. After all, consumers steered away from American Express will generally use Visa or Mastercard (and their own high-priced cards may be cannibalizing from their own low-priced cards anyway, so reducing their value may not hurt so much). It is therefore a better strategy for them to try to use the courts to undermine that provision so that they don’t actually need to compete with American Express.

Without the anti-steering provision, American Express loses its competitive advantage compared to MasterCard and Visa and would be forced to compete against those much larger platforms on their preferred terms. What’s more, this would give those platforms access to American Express’s vaunted high-value card holders without the need to invest resources in competing for them. In other words, outlawing anti-steering provisions could in fact have both anti-competitive intent and effect.

Of course, card networks aren’t necessarily innocent of anticompetitive conduct, one way or the other. Showing that they are on either side of the anti-steering rule requires a sufficiently comprehensive analysis of the industry and its participants’ behavior. But liability cannot be simply determined based on behavior on one side of a two-sided market. These companies can certainly commit anticompetitive mischief, and they need to be held accountable when that happens. But this case is not about letting American Express or tech companies off the hook for committing anticompetitive conduct. This case is about how we evaluate such allegations, weigh them against possible beneficial effects, and put in place the proper thorough analysis for this particular form of business.

Over the last two decades, scholars have studied the nature of multi-sided platforms, and have made a good deal of progress. We should rely on this learning, and make sure that antitrust analysis is sound, not expedient.

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.

[UPDATE:  Josh links to a WSJ article telling us that EU antitrust enforcers raided several (unnamed) e-book publishers as part of an apparent antitrust investigation into the agency model and whether it is “improperly restrictive.”  Whatever that means.  Key grafs:

At issue for antitrust regulators is whether agency models are improperly restrictive. Europe, in particular, has strong anticollusion laws that limit the extent to which companies can agree on the prices consumers will eventually be charged.

Amazon, in particular, has vociferously opposed the agency practice, saying it would like to set prices as it sees fit. Publishers, by contrast, resist the notion of online retailers’ deep discounting.

It is unclear whether the animating question is whether the publishers might have agreed to a particular pricing model, or to particular prices within that model.  As a legal matter that distinction probably doesn’t matter at all; as an economic matter it would seem to be more complicated–to be explored further another day . . . .]

A year ago I wrote about the economics of the e-book publishing market in the context of the dispute between Amazon and some publishers (notably Macmillan) over pricing.  At the time I suggested a few things about how the future might pan out (never a god good idea . . . ):

And that’s really the twist.  Amazon is not ready to be a platform in this business.  The economic conditions are not yet right and it is clearly making a lot of money selling physical books directly to its users.  The Kindle is not ubiquitous and demand for electronic versions of books is not very significant–and thus Amazon does not want to take on the full platform development and distribution risk.  Where seller control over price usually entails a distribution of inventory risk away from suppliers and toward sellers, supplier control over price correspondingly distributes platform development risk toward sellers.  Under the old system Amazon was able to encourage the distribution of the platform (the Kindle) through loss-leader pricing on e-books, ensuring that publishers shared somewhat in the costs of platform distribution (from selling correspondingly fewer physical books) and allowing Amazon to subsidize Kindle sales in a way that helped to encourage consumer familiarity with e-books.  Under the new system it does not have that ability and can only subsidize Kindle use by reducing the price of Kindles–which impedes Amazon from engaging in effective price discrimination for the Kindle, does not tie the subsidy to increased use, and will make widespread distribution of the device more expensive and more risky for Amazon.

This “agency model,” if you recall, is one where, essentially, publishers, rather than Amazon, determine the price for electronic versions of their books sold via Amazon and pay Amazon a percentage.  The problem from Amazon’s point of view, as I mention in the quote above, is that without the ability to control the price of the books it sells, Amazon is limited essentially to fiddling with the price of the reader–the platform–itself in order to encourage more participation on the reader side of the market.  But I surmised (again in the quote above), that fiddling with the price of the platform would be far more blunt and potentially costly than controlling the price of the books themselves, mainly because the latter correlates almost perfectly with usage, and the former does not–and in the end Amazon may end up subsidizing lots of Kindle purchases from which it is then never able to recoup its losses because it accidentally subsidized lots of Kindle purchases by people who had no interest in actually using the devices very much (either because they’re sticking with paper or because Apple has leapfrogged the competition).

It appears, nevertheless, that Amazon has indeed been pursuing this pricing strategy.  According to this post from Kevin Kelly,

In October 2009 John Walkenbach noticed that the price of the Kindle was falling at a consistent rate, lowering almost on a schedule. By June 2010, the rate was so unwavering that he could easily forecast the date at which the Kindle would be free: November 2011.

There’s even a nice graph to go along with it:

So what about the recoupment risk?  Here’s my new theory:  Amazon, having already begun offering free streaming videos for Prime customers, will also begin offering heavily-discounted Kindles and even e-book subsidies–but will also begin rescinding its shipping subsidy and otherwise make the purchase of dead tree books relatively more costly (including by maintaining less inventory–another way to recoup).  It will still face a substantial threat from competing platforms like the iPad but Amazon is at least in a position to affect a good deal of consumer demand for Kindle’s dead tree competitors.

For a take on what’s at stake (here relating to newspapers rather than books, but I’m sure the dynamic is similar), this tidbit linked from one of the comments to Kevin Kelly’s post is eye-opening:

If newspapers switched over to being all online, the cost base would be instantly and permanently transformed. The OECD report puts the cost of printing a typical paper at 28 per cent and the cost of sales and distribution at 24 per cent: so the physical being of the paper absorbs 52 per cent of all costs. (Administration costs another 8 per cent and advertising another 16.) That figure may well be conservative. A persuasive looking analysis in the Business Insider put the cost of printing and distributing the New York Times at $644 million, and then added this: ‘a source with knowledge of the real numbers tells us we’re so low in our estimate of the Times’s printing costs that we’re not even in the ballpark.’ Taking the lower figure, that means that New York Times, if it stopped printing a physical edition of the paper, could afford to give every subscriber a free Kindle. Not the bog-standard Kindle, but the one with free global data access. And not just one Kindle, but four Kindles. And not just once, but every year. And that’s using the low estimate for the costs of printing.