Less than a week ago, the National Collegiate Athletic Association filed a trademark infringement action in federal court against a company that runs an online sports-themed promotions and contests under the marks “April Madness” and “Final 3.” The NCAA is seeking injunctive relief, damages, the defendant’s profits, punitive damages and an award of attorneys’ fees.
Last year, I wrote about the risks of publishing ads or engaging in promotional activities that “play off” the NCAA Collegiate Basketball Playoffs. Clearly, such activities continue to carry great risks. Accordingly, I am republishing last year’s blog post on this subject:
It’s March Madness! Know the NCAA’s Rulebook or Risk A Foul Call Against the Unauthorized Use of Its Trademarks
With the NCAA Basketball Tournament about to begin, broadcasters, publishers and other businesses need to be wary about potential claims arising from their use terms and logos associated with the tournament, including March Madness,® The Big Dance,® Final Four® or Elite Eight,® each of which is a federally registered trademark.
The NCAA Aggressively Polices the Use of its Trademarks
It has been estimated that, last year, the NCAA earned $900 million in revenue associated with the NCAA Basketball tournament. Moreover, its returns from the tournament have historically grown each year. Most of this income comes from broadcast licensing fees. It also has a substantial amount of revenue from licensing March Madness® and its other marks for use by advertisers. As part of those licenses, the NCAA agrees to stop non-authorized parties from using any of the marks. Indeed, if the NCAA did not actively police the use of its marks by unauthorized companies, advertisers might not feel the need to get a license or, at least, to pay as much as they do for the license. Thus, the NCAA has a strong incentive to put on a full court press to prevent non-licensees from associating their goods and services with the NCAA tournament through unauthorized use of its trademarks.
Activities that May Result in a Whistle
The NCAA acknowledges that media entities can sell advertising that accompanies the entity’s coverage of the NCAA championships. Even so, as discussed in greater deal in my earlier discussion of the “Do’s and Don’ts” of Super Bowl-related promotions, unless authorized by the NCAA, any of the following activities may result in a cease and desist demand:
- accepting advertising that refers to the NCAA, the NCAA Basketball Tournament, March Madness, The Big Dance, Final Four, Elite Eight or any other NCAA trademark or logo (The NCAA has posted a list of its trademarks here.)
- Example: An ad from a retailer that starts, “Come Get Your Big Screen TV in Time to Watch March Madness.”
- local programming that uses any NCAA trademark as part of its name;
- Example: A locally produced program previewing the tournament called “The Big Dance: Pick a Winning Bracket.”
- selling the right to sponsor the overall coverage by a broadcaster, website or print publication of the tournament
- Example: During the sports segment of the local news, introducing the section of the report on tournament developments something such as “March Madness, brought to you by [name of advertiser].”
- sweepstakes or giveaways that include any NCAA trademark in its name
- Example: “The Final Four Giveaway”
- sweepstakes or giveaways that offer tickets to a tournament game as a prize
- Example: the sweepstakes name may not be a problem, but including game tickets as a prize will raise an objection by the NCAA.
- events or parties that use any NCAA trademark to attract attendees
- Example: a radio station sponsors a happy hour where fans can watch a tournament game and prominently places any of the NCAA marks on signage.
There is one more common pitfall that is unique to the NCAA Basketball: tournament brackets used in office pools where participants predict the winners of each game in advance of the tournament. The NCAA’s view is that the unauthorized placement of advertising within an NCAA bracket or corporate sponsorship of a tournament bracket is misleading and constitutes an infringement of its intellectual property rights. Accordingly, it says that any advertising should be outside of the bracket space and should clearly indicate that the advertiser or its goods or services are not sponsored by, approved by or otherwise associated with the NCAA or its championship tournament.
Note that none of these restrictions prevents media companies from using any of the marks in providing customary news coverage of or commentary on the tournament. Just be sure that they are just used to identify the tournament and its stages, and don’t in any way imply that there is an association between the station itself or any sponsor who does not have the rights to claim such association and the NCAA.
A Surprising History of “March Madness”
The NCAA was not the first to use “March Madness” as a trademark in connection with basketball tournaments. In fact, beginning in the 1940’s, the Illinois High School Association (IHSA) used it in connection with the Illinois state high school basketball championship playoffs.
The NCAA also may not have been the first to license the use of “March Madness.” Beginning in the early 1990’s, the IHSA licensed it for use by other state high school basketball tournaments and by corporations.
Moreover, the NCAA did not originate the use of “March Madness” to promote its collegiate basketball tournament. Rather, CBS broadcaster is credited with first using “March Madness” in 1982 to describe the tournament. As CBS was licensed by the NCAA to air the tournament, the NCAA apparently claims that as its date of first use.
Finally, the NCAA was not the first to register “March Madness” as a trademark. That honor went to a company called Intersport, Inc., which used the mark for sports programs it produced and registered the mark in 1989.
So, how did the NCAA get to claim ownership of the March Madness® trademark? The short answer is through litigation and negotiations over a period of many years. Although it has also been able to obtain federal registrations for Final Four® and Elite Eight,® it was late to the gate and was unable to snag “Sweet Sixteen” or “Sweet 16,” which are registered to the Kentucky High School Athletic Association (KHSAA). (The NCAA, however, has the KHSAA’s approval to register “NCAA Sweet Sixteen” and “NCAA Sweet 16.”)
The Final Score
Having invested so much in its trademarks, the NCAA takes policing its trademark rights very seriously. Even so, although the NCAA may send a cease-and-desist letter over the types of activities discussed above, some of its claims would not be a slam-dunk as there may be arguments to be made on both sides of these issues. If you plan to accept advertising incorporating an NCAA trademark or logo or plan to use an NCAA trademark or logo other than in the context of reporting on the tournament, you should consult with an experienced trademark attorney so you can make an informed decision about the level of risk that you may be taking on.