WASHINGTON – Major League Baseball struck out in the Supreme Court Monday as the justices let stand a ruling that gives for-profit “fantasy” leagues on the Web a free-speech right to use the names of real players without paying a licensing fee.
The court turned down baseball’s appeal of that ruling without comment.
It was a setback for baseball players and other professional athletes, who maintained that no one had a right to “exploit players’ identity for commercial gain.” The National Football League, National Basketball Association and National Hockey League had supported baseball’s players and owners in their appeal.
But the fantasy leagues successfully argued that famous ballplayers are well known to the public and that their names and statistics could be used freely – and without paying a fee for the privilege.
Fantasy sports are estimated to generate $500 million in revenue per year from more than 19 million participants, according to the Fantasy Sports Trade Association. As would-be “owners,” the participants select players from major league rosters, and standing of their teams depends on how those players perform during the season.
Most of the Web-based leagues charge fees to join.
The largest leagues are licensed by Major League Baseball and include those operated by ESPN, CBS Sportsline, Fox Sports and Yahoo. These companies pay a fee for the use of the players’ names.
A company in St. Louis, formerly known as C.B.C. Distribution & Marketing, sued in 2005 after Major League Baseball moved to cut it out of the licensing deal. Its lawyers argued that it did not need the permission of baseball to use the players’ names, and it won free-speech victories from a federal judge and the U.S. Court of Appeals in St. Louis.