NHL, broadcasters settle lawsuit over TV blackouts

(Adds settlement details, comments, case citation, byline) By Jonathan Stempel NEW YORK, June 11 (Reuters) - The National Hockey league will permit fans to watch their favorite teams play outside their home markets, without having to pay extra for a league-wide bundle of games, as part of a settlement of a class action antitrust lawsuit. The preliminary accord made public on Thursday resolves claims that the league, several teams, Comcast Corp, DirecTV and Madison Square Garden Co, used blackouts to limit out-of-market broadcasts of games. Fans said this forced them to buy costly bundles of games they did not care about, rather than spend less to buy games "a la carte," if they wanted to want their preferred teams. Under the settlement, the NHL will, for the next five years, offer a "Game Center Live" Internet package enabling fans to buy single-team packages for at least 20 percent below the cost of bundled packages. The league will also discount "early bird," renewal and full season prices by an additional 17.25 percent for the 2015-2016 season, allowing a fan who now pays $159 for a game bundle to instead buy a single-team package for about $105. Thursday's settlement requires approval by U.S. District Judge Shira Scheindlin in Manhattan. It came after the judge on May 14 dealt fans a setback by ruling they could not pursue damages in a class action, though they could pursue antitrust claims as a group. A similar lawsuit against Major League Baseball, several teams and broadcasters has not been settled. In a court filing, Howard Langer, a lawyer for the plaintiffs, called the accord "fair, reasonable and adequate." He said it was first time in any U.S. major league sport that consumers could choose between buying a league-wide out-of-market game bundle, or watching only their favorite teams, on a season-long basis. The team defendants included the Buffalo Sabres, Chicago Blackhawks, New Jersey Devils, New York Islanders, New York Rangers, Pittsburgh Penguins, San Jose Sharks and Washington Capitals. Shepard Goldfein, a lawyer for the NHL and teams, declined to comment. The league, Comcast, DirecTV and MSG were not immediately available for comment. Lawyers for the plaintiffs would receive $6.5 million to cover fees and costs under the settlement. The cases are Laumann et al v. National Hockey League et al, U.S. District Court, Southern District of New York, No. 12-01817; and Lerner et al v. Office of the Commissioner of Baseball et al in the same court, No. 12-03074. (Reporting by Jonathan Stempel in New York; Editing by Alan Crosby)