Trademarks in Sports
Sports can have an amazing impact. They can unite schools, cities, states, and nations. Sports not only impact the players and fans, but impact the community through the economy, through clothing stores, restaurants and bars, the tourism of a city, or even enrollment at a specific university. With the amount of potential earnings to be made, just like in any other industry, the sports world looks to trademarks to protect their rights, products, and even players.
It is estimated that Oklahoma City gained $50 to $60 million dollars in the previous basketball season. The University of Oklahoma pours $8.8 million into the local economy for every single home football game, and outside of the economic effect on the community, universities thrive from the revenue of college sports. In the 2010-2011 sports season, the University of Oklahoma had net revenue of $104,338,844.
Just like in any business, schools and owners seek to protect their trade. The most valuable asset to a sports organization or school is the logo or emblem, the symbol on uniforms, t-shirts, and all kinds of apparel. Trademarks are the best way for these universities and organizations to protect their rights, product, and potential earnings.
There are a variety of marks that universities and organizations use to register their symbols or names. A collective mark refers to members of a cooperative association, or other collective organization indicating membership in the particular organization such as the NFL (National Football League), NBA (National Basketball Association), MLB (Major League Baseball), or Collegiate Conferences such as the Big Ten, Big Twelve, SEC, or the Pac 12. A service mark identifies and distinguishes services of one entity from another which can be used in the sale of advertising or services, such as events and services related to the NCAA (National Collegiate Athletic Association).
In order to gain ownership rights, the university or organization must be the first to use the mark in trade (i.e., by selling a product or service that displays the trademark). They must then make continuous, uninterrupted use of the mark first use on its products or within its services. Once the trademark is used, consumers should be able to identify and distinguish the owner’s unique goods or services from those of others in the particular industry. A trademark owner may also federally register the mark. A trademark owner may then renew the registration every 10 years in order to maintain exclusive rights to the marks on his or her products and services.
More than two hundred colleges and universities are members of the Coalition to Advance the Protection of Sports Logos, a group founded in 1981 by numerous leagues, including the NCAA. The group has been successful in helping attain more than 2,300 arrests and confiscating $175 million in illegal merchandise.
The success of the Oklahoma City Thunder has garnered much attention throughout the nation and this state. During the most recent finals run, 44.3% of televisions in Oklahoma City and 27.7% of televisions in Tulsa tuned into game one of the NBA finals matchup between the Miami Heat and the Oklahoma City Thunder. With such a massive following in the state, business owners looked to capitalize on the popularity of the team. Bars and restaurants hung Thunder flags from their windows hoping to attract fans, and clothing stores stocked up on Thunder apparel. Local artists attempted to design and sell their own versions of Thunder gear and many stores around the state began to sell their products. It was not long before the Thunder Organization and the NBA took notice of the unlicensed gear. On June 6th, six agents, five NBA officials, and one member Homeland Security raided “Hi-Performance” an Oklahoma City store that had been selling locally created unlicensed Thunder-inspired t-shirts. The NBA officials took all of the unlicensed material from the store, then handing a letter to the owner stating that the NBA owned all images on the material they were selling.
Teams and universities are not the only ones protecting their symbols. Athletes themselves have been trademarking unique symbols or slogans to protect their image or identity. The top draft pick in the most recent NBA draft, Anthony Davis, has drafted an application to trademark his famous or infamous unibrow. Davis is also attempting to trademark the phrases “Raise the Brow” and "Fear the Brow” as part of his persona. With his rising fame, Davis saw the popularity of t-shirts with those phrases in college, and as a professional, he seeks to protect and profit off of, what he argues, his unique trade. There are many other examples of odd trademarks in sports, and this will continue as long as the market flourishes in the sports industry.
As a consumer, business owner, artist, or anyone looking to capitalize on the popularity and economic benefit of sports, it is important to know what you are selling or buying. The world of sports is exciting, thrilling, and sometimes, even disappointing. It can be pure entertainment, and to some it can be a way of life and just like in any other industry, it is a business that must be protected.