It’s that season: Major sports prepared to cry foul over trademark infringement

published in McAfee & Taft tiPsheet | February 4, 2022

February marks the start of a four-month stretch of some of the most prominent sporting events in the world, including the Super Bowl, Daytona 500, NCAA tournament, as well as the Masters, and concluding with the highly anticipated return of the PGA Championship to Tulsa, Oklahoma, in May. Along with trophies, heartbreak and the occasional parade, these events often bring about internal and external promotional campaigns centered around “The Big Game,” spring “Madness” and the like. While this type of marketing may seem short-lived and relatively harmless, businesses should be wary in how they reference such upcoming events, as many of the names and logos associated with these events are protected by federal trademark registrations owned by companies that will not shy away from their enforcement.

For example, the terms “Super Bowl,” “AFC” and “NFC” are all federally registered trademarks owned by NFL Properties, the merchandising and licensing arm of the National Football League. Likewise, “NCAA,” “March Madness,” “Final Four” and “The Big Dance” are federally registered trademarks owned by the National Collegiate Athletic Association, and “PGA” and “PGA Championship” are federally registered trademarks owned by the Professional Golfers’ Association of America. These entities are known to aggressively enforce their rights against unauthorized use of these names and their associated logos, particularly in the weeks leading up to these events. And, while it’s not trademark infringement to use these terms and phrases in an informative or purely descriptive sense (e.g., “that team won the Super Bowl” or “my team won’t make the Final Four”), use of protected and registered terms in connection with businesses’ promotional activities could result in a not-too-pleasant demand letter.

While agreeing to cease use of these marks in dealing with such a demand may not, itself, be a large direct expense, destroying expensive marketing materials or modifying a promotional program mid-stream can have an indirect cost your business would like to avoid. So, before using these terms (or something close) in your marketing, consider focusing your marketing on the timing or concept of an event (e.g., the “Big Game”) rather than using a protected name (e.g., “Super Bowl”). As we get closer to these events and marketing campaigns are generated, businesses should consult with legal counsel for further guidance if there is any question as to what may or may not be an acceptable advertisement.