Bunning: Cubs’ sale at odds with MLB antitrust exemption
BY GORDON WITTENMYER Staff Reporter June 15, 2014 9:12PM
Updated: June 15, 2014 9:18PM
PHILADELPHIA — If anyone in the U.S. House or Senate decides to bring another challenge to Major League Baseball’s antitrust exemption, the Cubs’ sale to the Ricketts family could become part of the case, former lawmaker Jim Bunning said.
Bunning, the baseball Hall of Famer who later led multiple threats and challenges to MLB’s exemption as a seven-term congressman and two-term senator, isn’t convinced there’s anyone left in Washington willing to take up that issue.
But if the pay-us-now, we’ll-try-to-win-later practices of such big-market teams as the Cubs stir up enough rancor among elected officials or their constituents, Bunning sees at least one avenue for shaking MLB by the collar of its coveted antitrust exemption:
The use of its legal monopoly to continually exclude high bidders — such as Mark Cuban — from buying franchises.
Cuban said in an interview last summer that he was cut out of the Cubs’ process, despite a $1.3 billion bid that was more than 50 percent higher than the Rickettses’ winning bid. He also said he was denied a chance to buy the Texas Rangers a year later after another bid that beat the winner.
“That’s where you could get something,” Bunning, who was in Philadelphia for a throwback weekend, said of a challenge to the exemption. “If somebody like Mark Cuban wants to buy a team and offers something like
$2 billion, and they tell him he can’t. If they made an exception for a specific sale, it would be against the antitrust laws [and spirit of the exemption].”
Multiple sources confirm the open secret when it comes to Cuban and baseball: MLB wants no part of an outspoken, deep-pockets owner who might drive up player salaries and challenge the establishment.
The impact on the Cubs was a highly leveraged partnership purchase by a secondary bidder that has crippled the team’s short-term spending ability because of the biggest debt burden in the game, along with spending restrictions through related bank covenants.
It might take several more years — and eventually require the massive new TV deal Cubs business execs have promised — for the team to regain their big-market muscle.
“The economics of this deal have been terrible,” said one source with direct knowledge of the terms demanded by seller Sam Zell, as a shield from capital gains taxes.
“Anytime there is a major change like you’re talking about with the ownership of the Cubs, if that kind of trend would continue, the answer to your question is yes,” Bunning said of the potential for a challenge.
However, the actual business practices of the team — which include sacrificing seasons to stock the farm system while charging the third-highest ticket prices in the game — don’t rise to actionable levels, Bunning said.
“If you want to buy tickets to a baseball game and go to Wrigley Field and see a Double-A or Triple-A team, that’s your choice,” he said.
But the fact that skyrocketing media-rights deals allow some teams to ignore fans and make winning a secondary concern — because attendance is no longer the top-line revenue source — has the potential to stir outrage if it becomes a trend, Bunning suggested. Especially for an industry that expects to cross the $9 billion mark in revenues this year.
“That’s bad for the Cubs, it’s bad for baseball, it’s bad for the league as a whole,” Bunning said.
Outrage often has been the catalyst for lawmakers to examine ways to threaten a 92-year-old exemption that was the dubious result of a lawsuit by the defunct Federal League and has survived only through MLB’s acquiescence when challenged by the likes of Bunning.
It was the hammer lawmakers used to push for steroid-testing reform in baseball a decade ago.
“I’m not sure there’s anyone in the Senate or Congress left who knows baseball has an exemption,” Bunning cracked.
Much less outrage over what’s going on in places such as Chicago.
“You can’t fool the people that long,” he said. “If the Cubs don’t become competitive, they might as well close the doors.”