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NCAA puts full-court press on unauthorized use of Final Four trademarks

If you’re planning a Final Four viewing party, you may want to refer to the event on your invitations as the “College Hoops Basketball Championship” or something even more generic, lest you have lawyers from the NCAA knocking on your door threatening to sue for trademark infringement.

That’s only a slight exaggeration regarding the fervor with which the National Collegiate Athletic Association protects its trademark for “March Madness” and more than two dozen other terms associated with the annual college basketball tournament. The NCAA actively monitors the use of its trademarked terms, such as “March Madness,” “Final Four” or “Elite Eight,” by restaurants and bars, souvenir vendors and other businesses looking to profit off of the event without paying licensing fees.

Cash Cow

The NCAA warns that its trademarks are “carefully controlled” and aggressively protected.” And for good reason: Investopedia reports the NCAA raked in a record $1 billion in revenue in 2018 from media rights fees, ticket sales, corporate sponsorships and a proliferation of television ads anchored around the three-week-long tournament.

Even a well-financed organization like the NCAA cannot monitor every corner bar or T-shirt seller, but it does send out cease-and-desist letters every year during tournament time.

In 2017, the NCAA successfully sued Kizzang, a Las Vegas-based fantasy sports sweepstakes company, to prevent them from using “Final 3” and “April Madness” in events related to the college basketball championships. Kizzang failed to respond to the complaint within the applicable time frame, and the NCAA was granted its motion for a preliminary injunction. The NCAA is now seeking to recover more than $249,000 in legal fees from Kizzang.

The Kizzang case is a good example of why entities are so protective of the trademarks they own and unauthorized use by third parties. Trademark holders argue that any use of its protected terms – authorized or not – automatically associates their brand with the third party. If a third party using March Madness terminology without authorization provides a poor experience, the NCAA risks its brand being tarnished as well.

If you’re a restaurant or bar owner, you may have good intentions to create buzz for your patrons by inviting them to enjoy March Madness games on your big-screen TVs. However, if you haven’t cleared that with the NCAA, you may encounter a lot of madness yourself, not to mention liability for trademark infringement, unless your advertising remains limited to merely inviting patrons to watch “the college basketball championship tournament” at your establishment.

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