In a unanimous decision released yesterday afternoon, the U.S. Supreme Court held that the National Football League (NFL) is not immune from antitrust laws and should be considered an umbrella organization consisting of thirty-two separate teams rather than a single entity. The Court’s ruling will allow an antitrust lawsuit filed against the NFL by American Needle — a clothing manufacturer — to move forward. Writing for the Court, Justice Stevens stated that “[d]ecisions by NFL teams to license their separately owned trademarks . . . to only one vendor are decisions that deprive the marketplace of . . . actual or potential competition.”
American Needle filed the suit after it was prohibited from continuing to produce branded clothing for NFL teams following the NFL’s execution of a ten-year exclusive licensing agreement with Reebok. Should American Needle ultimately prevail, the structure of NFL license schemes will change dramatically and individual teams will be permitted to negotiate their own license deals. For this reason, the decision may likego down as one of the landmark sports law and licensing decisions of the past few decades.
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