Branding is the key to commercial success in sport. Just think: where would the New York Yankees be without their iconic NY logo? Or the Chicago Bulls without their iconic bull’s head? How much money would the Australian Football League (AFL) make if they didn’t own the logos for every team, and couldn’t sell official merchandise?
It’s not just logos and team names that can be protected either. Who owns the design of an iconic trophy, such as the soccer world cup trophy, the ashes trophy or the Hopman Cup trophy? Individual athletes also have a great deal of commercial interest in their personal brand, such as Greg Norman’s shark, and LeBron James’ LJ logo.
Owning your brand
For the most part, trade mark registration is the best way to protect the brand assets of sports teams, codes, competitions and individual athletes. It is essential to register any team symbols, crests logos and names, personal logos and names (including nicknames), as well as trophy designs, team colours and slogans. Iconic gestures can also be registered as trade marks, such as Gareth Bale’s ‘Eleven of Hearts’.
Trade mark registration is the first way to ensure that your club, organisation or athlete owns their brand, but design registration is also important and vastly under utilised. Design registration can be used to register trophy designs, uniform designs, unique water bottle shapes or any other interesting item of branding that identifies a particular team, athlete or competition. Design registration is also a more suitable form of registration than a trade mark registration for all of these things.
Possessing your brand
Ownership is the first step in protecting a sports brand, but enforcement and practical protection are also necessary to realise the full commercial benefit. Once a trade mark is registered for a name, it is important to register the domain name, register social media accounts for the name, register business names and keep an eye out for people who may be using the brand without permission. As they say “possession is nine tenths of the law”, and possessing your intellectual property is just as important as having legal ownership.
Commercialising your brand
When you have secure possession and ownership, licensing is the best way to then make money and commercialise your brand. By giving others the right to use your brand to create merchandise, you can receive license fees and royalties. For major brands these fees will often amount to hundreds of thousands of dollars, if not millions.
Licensing arrangements can come in many forms. They can be as simple as authorizing a fashion designer to manufacture clothing with a team logo, or permitting a jeweler to make replicas of your competition’s trophy. There are a million ways that a team, competition or athlete’s brand can be used to make money, but none of these can even be considered unless it brand is owned first.