Local company accuses NFL of price-fixing

January 13, 2010 4:44:23 AM PST
If you've ever felt you've paid too much for a Bears hat or a beer at Soldier Field, sports-industry watchers say pay attention to an anti-trust lawsuit between a suburban company and the National Football League. It's caught the attention of the nation's highest court.

The Super Bowl, it's not. But a legal showdown involving a family-owned apparel maker and the National Football League is about to play out in the United States Supreme Court.

"Anything someone is wearing, there is a chance that it could be one of ours," said Dan Parenti, American Needle Creative Director.

American Needle, based in Buffalo Grove, makes everything from sports caps to personalized golf shirts. But in 2001, they lost their license to make NFL apparel when the league decided to give the contract for all of its teams to one company: Reebok.

"It's a little David vs. Goliath but we knew that when we were getting into it," said Jeff Carey American Needle general counsel.

In its suit, American Needle says the NFL's decision has caused consumers to pay higher prices. They submit as evidence a Reebok vice president's alleged claim that "basic fitted caps that were selling for $19.99 a few years ago are now selling for $30."

The question for the Supreme Court is whether the NFL should be considered a single entity that can essentially set policy and prices. Or, because the league has 32 teams with 32 different owners, signing exclusivity deals with a single vendor amounts to price fixing. "As competition is eliminated among those of us who make and design these products, the wholesale and retail prices will continue to rise for consumers," said Carey.

Those in the sports industry are closely watching the case. If the court protects the NFL from anti-trust suits, some believe it will impact the price fans pay for everything from beers at the game to tickets. It could also affect players' power at the bargaining table.

"The concern is you have a large organization who has an awful lot of control," said Gary Blackman, Sports Attorney, Levenfeld & Pearlstein.

The NFL did not respond to calls for comment. But the 25 employees at American Needle can't wait to hear what the Supreme Court has to say.