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High court rejects fantasy baseball challenge

The effect: Made-up leagues can keep using names and statistics of real players without paying licensing fees.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / June 3, 2008


A company that offers fantasy baseball games on the Internet has won its battle to use the names and performance statistics of Major League Baseball players without permission and without paying licensing fees.

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The US Supreme Court on Monday declined to take up a case examining whether fantasy sports leagues are shielded from such requirements by the First Amendment.

Although the Supreme Court did not consider the merits of the case, by refusing to hear the appeal the high court leaves in place an earlier appeals court decision in St. Louis allowing the company to operate without the permission of the players and the league.

So-called fantasy sports leagues have proliferated over the past 15 years, growing from a weekend hobby for die-hard fans into a $1.5 billion industry with more than 15 million paying participants.

Football and baseball are the most popular. There are roughly 11 million fantasy football enthusiasts and 3 million fantasy baseball participants.

Fantasy sports competitions are also offered for basketball, hockey, soccer, golf, lacrosse, stock car racing, track and field, and even bowling.

The case before the high court – Major League Baseball Advanced Media v. CBC Distribution and Marketing – was a high-stakes battle between professional athletes and fantasy sports businesses. Ultimately the case involved striking a balance between free-speech guarantees and the publicity rights of famous people.

Fantasy sports players pay a fee to assume the role of a team owner and assemble a roster of real-life players – on paper. CBC and other fantasy league operators have established a point-value system to measure each selected player's on-field performance, using statistical measures such as hits, home runs, and stolen bases (for baseball). Fantasy games are "played" by comparing the teamwide score of one owner's fantasy roster versus another owner's fantasy roster.

CBC's entrance fees run from $30 to $1,000. Prize money can range from $3,000 to $50,000.

The key question in the Supreme Court case was whether CBC's use of real players' names and statistics infringed the players' publicity rights.

Some legal analysts say such fantasy leagues are a form of commerce that seeks to exploit the fame of sports stars. Others argue that fantasy leagues are merely a means of organizing and presenting publicly available information in an entertaining way.

If the fantasy league is aimed at communicating information, the activity is protected by the First Amendment, analysts say, but if it is primarily commerce it may not be.