march madness in advertising

While the NCAA has called off March Madness, promotions may still be continuing, and we certainly hope that the tournament will be back again next year.  So we figured that, as this article was already written, we might as well publish it.  Yesterday, we wrote about the history of the NCAA’s assembling of the rights to an array of trademarks associated with this month’s basketball tournament.  Today, we’ll provide some examples of the activities that bring unwanted NCAA attention to your operations.
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With the NCAA Basketball Tournament about to begin (though without an audience at the games), broadcasters, publishers and other businesses need to be wary about potential claims arising from their use of terms and logos associated with the tournament, including the well-known marks March Madness®, The Big Dance®, Final Four®, Women’s Final Four®, Elite Eight,® and The Road to the Final Four® (with and without the word “The”), each of which is a federally registered trademark.  The NCAA does not own “Sweet Sixteen – someone else does – but it does have federal registrations for NCAA Sweet Sixteen® and NCAA Sweet 16®.

The NCAA also has federal registrations for some lesser known marks, including March Mayhem®, March Is On®, Midnight Madness®, Selection Sunday®, 68 Teams, One Dream®, And Then There Were Four®, and NCAA Fast Break®.  The NCAA has a pending application to register March to the Madness as well.

Some of these marks are used to promote the basketball tournament or the coverage of the tournament, while others are used on merchandise, such as t-shirts.  The NCAA also uses (or licenses) variations on these marks without seeking registration, but it can claim common law rights in those marks, e.g., March Madness Live, March Madness Music Festival and Final Four Fan Fest.

Although the NCAA may use the federal registration symbol (®) with any of its federally registered marks, it is not obligated to do so.  Thus, it should not be assumed that the lack of the symbol means that the NCAA is not claiming trademark rights.
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Alternate Title: March Madness Trademarks: It’s March Spring and You Do Not Want to Make the NCAA Mad Angry at You

As we have previously reported, the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) is very serious about taking action against anyone who may try to trade off the goodwill in its March Madness marks — even if the NCAA’s actual marks are not used. For example:

  • Readers may recall that the NCAA filed a trademark infringement action in 2017 against a company that ran online sports-themed promotions and sweepstakes under the marks “April Madness” and “Final 3.” The defendant stipulated to an order providing that it would cease using those marks at least until the end of the year, but the order did not provide for dismissal of the case. The defendant failed to file an answer to the complaint and the NCAA was granted a default judgment, after which it filed a motion requesting an award of attorneys’ fees against the defendant in the amount of $242,213.55. In May 2018, the Court awarded attorneys’ fees in the amount of $220,998.05.
  • The NCAA sued a car dealership that had registered and was using the mark “Markdown Madness” in advertising. (The case was settled.)
  • Even schools that are part of the NCAA are not immune from claims of infringement. Seven years after the Big Ten Conference started using the mark “March Is On!,” the NCAA opposed an application to have that mark federally registered. (Ultimately, the opposition was withdrawn, the mark was registered, but the registration was assigned to the NCAA.)

These actions illustrate the level of importance that the NCAA places on acting against the use of trademarks which seek to create an association with its annual Collegiate Basketball Tournament. Clearly, such activities continue to carry great risks. Accordingly, following is an updated version of our prior blog posts on this subject.

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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. March Mayhem® is also registered to the NCAA, which is currently seeking to register March to the Madness.

The NCAA Aggressively Defends Against Unauthorized Use of its Trademarks

The NCAA states that $844.3M of its annual revenues derives from the licensing of television and marketing rights in the Division I Men’s 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.
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It was almost exactly one year ago that we reported that the National Collegiate Athletic Association filed a trademark infringement action in federal court against a company that ran online sports-themed promotions and sweepstakes under the marks “April Madness” and “Final 3.”  The NCAA prevailed because the defendant entered into an agreement not to use the marks, but failed to file an answer to the complaint.  A default judgment was entered.  On February 23, 2018, the NCAA filed a motion requesting an an award of attorneys’ fees against the defendant in the amount of $242,213.55.

The amount of attorneys’ fees incurred in a case that was resolved with relatively little resistance illustrates the level of importance that the NCAA places on taking action against activities that “play off” the NCAA Collegiate Basketball Playoffs.  Clearly, such activities continue to carry great risks.  Accordingly, following is an updated version of last year’s blog post on this subject.

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.
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Less than a week ago, the National Collegiate Athletic Association filed a trademark infringement action in federal court against a company that runs 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.
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Two months ago, I wrote here about the risks of publishing ads or engaging in promotional activities that refer to the Super Bowl without approval of the NFL. Now, with the NCAA Basketball Tournament about to begin, broadcasters, publishers and other businesses need to be multiply 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.
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We are in March, which means that the minds of many turn to basketball, specifically March Madness as the NCAA hosts its annual championship tournament to crown college basketball’s national champion. And many broadcasters want to take advantage of the tournament to promote their stations or the products of their sponsors. Because of this inclination, we post this warning each year (see, for instance, here and here) – just like we do around the Super Bowl or the Olympics – these championship names are trademarked, and the owners are active in policing and protecting their marks, as sponsors pay the NCAA big bucks for association with the championship – so be careful about using “March Madness” in promotions and advertisements, as these uses could bring trouble.

Each year, we get the question “is March Madness a trademarked term” or, as it is sometimes formulated, “is March Madness copyrighted” (in fact, in this context, when talking about the name which brands an event, we are talking about trademark law, not copyright). And each year we say “yes.” But what does that mean? That does not mean that your newscasters, sports reporters or morning DJs can’t talk about the tournament using the name of the event. Instead, what it means is that commercial uses of the term, that could imply some association with the event for which sponsors pay money, can be problematic – and could cause the NCAA and their lawyers to pay attention, and could cost you or your sponsor money or time defending the use. So the safest way to avoid issues is to avoid the trademarked phrase in promotions and advertisements.
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With the college football champion now decided, and the NFL league championships this coming weekend to decide this year’s Super Bowl teams, it’s that time when we post our warning about being careful with using the phrase “Super Bowl” in your promotions and commercials.  Both copyright and trademark issues can arise at Super Bowl time.  Trademark is usually the biggest concern, as there are always issues when broadcasters and advertisers don’t watch their commercials and promotions to avoid improper uses of a trademarked phrase like “Super Bowl.”  But copyright issues can also arise when broadcasters or others make a commercial use of part of the game’s TV coverage, or hold commercial paid viewing parties where proper rights to display the telecast has not been obtained.

First the trademark issues that arise not only with the Super Bowl, but also with other big brand events like March Madness which will begin to be hyped soon after the Super Bowl.  As we do every year when the Super Bowl and March Madness roll around, we remind broadcasters to scrutinize their advertising and promotions to avoid anything that appears to imply a tie-in with any of these events – especially where the trademark-protected name of the event is used in the ad or promotion itself. (See past articles here, here and here). 
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It’s that time again when broadcasters and advertisers need to watch their commercials and promotions to avoid improper uses of trademarked phrases – with the Super Bowl only weeks away, the Winter Olympics to follow soon thereafter and March Madness to follow closely after that.  Already, Stephen Colbert is making jokes about not using the Olympic rings in promotional announcements (see the first segment of last night’s show), so you know that the issue is arising at media outlets across the country.  As we do every year when the Super Bowl and March Madness roll around (and every other year at Olympics time), we remind broadcasters to scrutinize their advertising and promotions to avoid anything that appears to imply a tie in with any of these events – especially where the protected name of the event is used in the ad or promotion itself. (See past articles here and here). 

The Super Bowl and March Madness are both trademarked terms, and violations of the trademarks have been vigorously prosecuted by the NFL and the NCAA, respectively.  The US Olympic committee has gone one better, getting specific statutory protections in the US for the use of the term the Olympics and the interlocking rings that symbolize the games.  Sponsors of these events pay big bucks for the privilege of being associated with the events, and the organizations putting on the events rely on the money from these sponsors to fund their operations.  So they go out of their way to protect their trademarks.  I wrote the summer before last about my own experiences at the London Summer Olympics, where even the trademarks on the plumbing fixtures at the Olympic sites were obscured where the manufacturers had not obtained Olympics sponsorships.  So there are obviously limits on what can and cannot be said about these marks.  What are those limits?
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We’ve written many times before about those big name events, like March Madness, the Olympics and the Super Bowl. Events that you and your advertisers are just dying to tie into your own local event – a sale, a party or maybe the introduction of some special new product or service. Well, like the Super Bowl, March Madness is a trademarked term, and you need to exercise care in its use. While the company that owns the trademark (a company partially owned by the NCAA) may not be as aggressive as the NFL or the Olympic Committees in protecting its rights, it can still be an issue should you start promoting your March Madness sale without permission and get caught.

When we wrote our usual warning about the use of the term "Super Bowl" in advertising earlier this year, I received one message asking if I worked for the NFL. A reader who obviously had trademark law experience complained that I was too cautious in urging broadcasters to avoid the use of the term Super Bowl in a commercial. The argument from the reader was that, if used in the right way, not to name an event but just to say something like – "buy a big screen TV so that can watch the Super Bowl, the Academy Awards and all the best television that is coming your way this year," your use of the term in a commercial could probably be justified should it be challenged. While that may be the case, making the distinction between this arguably permissible kind of use, and a more problematic use (like "come on down to Joe’s electronics for our Super Bowl Sale on big screen TVs") is a nuanced issue. By avoiding the trademarked term in advertising, and instead sticking with something more generic – like "it is tournament time again, and you can watch all the action with a new big screen TV from Joe’s Electronics" – avoids any of the issues that might arise if you use the trademarked term in your commercial.


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