Am. Needle, Inc. v. New Orleans Louisiana Saints, No. 07-4006 (7th Cir. Aug. 18, 2008) (Kanne, J.).*

Judge Kanne, writing for a unanimous panel, affirmed Judge Moran’s opinions holding that the National Football League ("NFL") acting through its NFL Properties entity was a single entity and, therefore, dismissing plaintiff American Needle’s Sherman Act antitrust claims — click here and here to read the Blog’s post on Judge Moran’s prior opinions in this case.  For more than twenty years, NFL Properties licensed American Needle to use various NFL and NFL team trademarks on American Needle’s headwear. American Needle filed this suit after NFL Properties entered an exclusive, ten year license with Reebok, ending American Needle’s license rights. Plaintiff argued that the NFL teams collectively, as well as in concert with Reebok, violated the antitrust laws by acting together through NFL Properties to license their collective intellectual property rights exclusively to Reebok (American Needle argued that the NFL did not violate antitrust laws when it licensed to numerous parties, including American Needle, through NFL Properties).

The Seventh Circuit explained that sports leagues are difficult to classify because they display elements of a single entity, as well as elements of a joint venture made up of independent owners.  The Seventh Circuit, therefore, determines whether a sports league is a single entity "one league at a time" and "one facet of a league at a time."  In this case, the NFL was a single entity because for the purpose of promoting its football product — because no one team can stage a game alone.  It followed that if the NFL was a single entity for promoting football, it was also a single entity for promoting its product by selling NFL apparel.  Additionally, the Court noted that the record established that the NFL teams had been acting as a single entity for IP licensing since 1963.

The opinion’s introductory paragraph is also worth discussing.  It is very well crafted, engaging both legal and non-legal readers:

As the most successful and popular professional sports league in America today, the NFL needs little introduction.  Indeed, the NFL has inspired countless hours of heated and in-depth discussion about the league’s 88 years of professional-football history, including its great players, championship teams, and memorable games. But the only discussion the NFL inspires here involves aspects of the league that are not as well known:  the league’s corporate structure, and the nature of its relationships with its member teams and the entities charged with licensing those teams’ intellectual property.

For another perspective on the opinion, check out the WSJ Law Blog’s post

Click here to read the Seventh Circuit’s opinion.