A bankruptcy judge in in Phoenix has struck down the sale of the financially desperate Phoenix Coyotes to Blackberry co-founder and wannabe NHL team owner Jim Balsillie. The reason had little to do with principle, as Judge Redfield T. Baum explained that Balsillie’s deadline of June 29 to wrap up the deal was to quick to resolve the myriad issues complicating the future of the Coyotes. (Text of ruling here [PDF].)
Balsillie has tried to acquire and move an NHL team to the Hamilton, Ontario area three times. Initially, he wanted to move the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2006, as there appeared to be no replacement for antiquated Mellon Arena (The Igloo) on the horizon. His bid was rejected, and eventually an investment group fronted by Mario Lemieux bought the team. A new Pittsburgh arena is under construction. Balsillie then moved on to Nashville, where the Predators haven’t been setting league attendance records. The league instead preferred Preds ownership to keep the team in town, and an ownership group headed by San Jose financier William “Boots” Del Biaggio was chosen instead. If that name sounds familiar, it’s because Del Biaggio recently pled guilty to securities fraud. Apparently, Boots was running a Ponzi scheme to finance his high-rolling lifestyle and to provide capital for his failed purchase of the Preds. After being rebuffed twice, Balsillie turned his attention to the Phoenix franchise, whose team name should be changed to the Phoenix Wile E. Coyotes.
In the last few weeks, a handful of speculative articles have surfaced with the thinking that should the sale be allowed, it would send shockwaves throughout the four major North American pro sports leagues, as there would be precedent to take on various antitrust protections and/or league ownership covenants. Even though the time issue was the major concern, Baum definitely sided with pro sports leagues in his opinion:
“This court can not find that antitrust law, as applicable nonbankruptcy law, permits the sale free and clear of the relocation rights of the NHL,” Baum wrote.
He added, “It is not an antitrust violation for professional sports leagues to have terms and conditions on relocations of its members.”
Judge Baum also felt the incredibly bizarre case was unprecedented:
“The legal issues trigger not only bankruptcy law, but antitrust law and commercial law in the context of a professional sports team, as a Chapter 11 debtor, which team has for years incurred, and is continuing to incur, very serious financial losses and problems,” Baum wrote. “No cases have been found that precisely or even closely fit this scenario.”
I’m not going to rehash all of the sordid details of this Coyotes mess, you’re better off going to Five for Howling and then read from there.
The four major commissioners can sleep well. It’s not that there would be some mass exodus of teams in the coming months, the economy simply isn’t ripe for it. Still, the NHL asked the other three leagues to pen a brief on its behalf. But leave it to someone to try to draw the A’s situation into it, and this time it’s not a Bay Area sports writer – it’s LA Times baseball writer Bill Shaikin. Over the weekend, Shaikin mused that a decision one way or the other could spur either the A’s or Giants to act. If Balsillie won, the floodgates could be thrown open and the A’s could have better footing to fight T-rights. Then again, that same outcome could cause the Giants to sue to protect their territory, a battle which could be waged for several costly years. Either would be done with the thought that the MLB Constitution was somehow weakened by the decision.
For now it’s all moot. MLB’s antitrust provision remains unthreatened, and territorial rights stay as is. It hasn’t stopped the media from revisiting the issue yet again, as Friday’s Chronicle Live and a followup by John Shea indicates. The last word comes from Judge Baum, who had two sentences in the 21-page ruling that I felt was even somewhat relatable:
There are a (sic) some reported decisions allowing franchises to be relocated short distances within the area of their existing business without the consent or over the objection of the franchisor; excising such restriction from the contract.
As noted above, antitrust claims are inherently factually driven cases and it is not an antitrust violation for professional sports leagues to have terms and conditions on relocations of member teams.
In other words: status quo.