March Madness marketing can risk trademark infringement

Q&A with Zachary Oubre

published in The Oklahoman | March 14, 2017

College basketball is big business. Really big business. And those who would seek to profit off the NCAA Division I men’s basketball tournament by using the term “March Madness” to market their own goods and services should think again.

In a Q&A with The Oklahoman, McAfee & Taft intellectual property attorney Zach Oubre warned businesses that the term “March Madness” — as well as “Final Four” and “The Big Dance” — are all trademarks that are federally registered by the National Collegiate Athletic Association, which is known to aggressively enforce its rights in these trademarks, especially around tournament time. While using these terms and phrases in an informative sense is not infringement, using the terms for unlicensed marketing purposes may result in action being taken by NCAA lawyers.

“An alternative is to focus your marketing on the timing or concept of the tournament rather than using protected terms, like referencing the NFL’s “Big Game” instead of saying “Super Bowl,” said Oubre.

Interestingly, the NCAA wasn’t the first organization to use the term “March Madness,” he said. It acquired the rights to the phrase after four decades of litigation — first with the Illinois High School Association, which claimed one of their officials initially coined the phrase, and then with an entertainment company that acquired perpetual rights to the term from the ISHA.

“That settlement reportedly cost the NCAA approximately $17 million. So it’s fair to say the NCAA feels strongly about the phrase.”