“The Big Game” — big time lawyers vs. little guy.

If anyone wants a lesson on how to protect your trademarked brand, just watch the NFL legal team in action.  This article by Timothy Carney from the Washington Examiner caught my attention. It details how the NFL won a legal battle before it really began over an Indiana man with some foresight and a dream to make some money selling T-shirts. Roy Fox had watched how NBA Coach Pat Riley made some extra cash by trademarking the term “Three-Peat” when the Lakers were on that multi-year championship run.  Either the NBA lawyers are a little more laid back or they cut Riley some slack because he is part of the NBA family (and likely went through licensed NBA merchandise vendors).

Jim Harbaugh, coach of SF, is taking on his brother John Harbaugh, coach of Baltimore in the game affectionately, but controversially known, as the Harbowl.

Jim Harbaugh, coach of SF, is taking on his brother John Harbaugh, coach of Baltimore in the game affectionately, but controversially known, as the Harbowl.

Carney relates Fox’s vision of a SuperBowl (whoops, I mean “Big Game”) between the San Francisco 49ers coached by Jim Harbaugh and the Baltimore Ravens coached by his brother John Harbaugh, hence he applied to trademark the terms Harbowl and Harbaughbowl through USPTO (the United States Patent and Trademark Office) over a year ago, approval coming last February. Fox envisioned making a small killing off the rights to T-shirts, caps, and fangear.

This week, radio host football fan Bill Bennett, in anticipation of Hilary Clinton’s appearance before the Senate hearing on Benghazi, predicted strategy perfectly, “If you’re not playing offense, you’re playing defense.” Hilary did not disappoint. The lawyers who represent NFL brand interests understand this and did not waste any time or energy, going on offense even before the marquis match-up  between Harbaugh Bros. became a reality. Carney’s article details how they headed off Fox’s plans before they really got off the ground.

My initial reaction was Shakespearean (“The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers.”). Then, it was small business sympathy driven (big corporations running roughshod over little entrepreneur with a great idea).  Then, I put my branding hat on. The NFL has a lot invested in its myriad of league and team brands. It makes them a ton of money all season long, and then all over again in the off-season. When gear is sold, they go through an elaborate process of licensing vendors and monitoring the quality of merchandise sold with the NFL brandnames attached.

The NFL did not own or conceive of trademarking Harbowl or HarbaughBowl; however, these marks are obviously related to the NFL product on the field and future products to be sold off the field. They had no control over how Mr. Fox would proceed in his business ventures. If he sold shoddy merchandise, it would reflect badly on the NFL.  As for the Harbaughs and their personal brands, I think they are both a little more focused on the outcome of next Sunday’s game to be concerned with this peripheral controversy right now.

According to Carney, Fox did not have a business or legal background, so when NFL attorneys came at him like the Ravens defensive line, he wisely saw his career as a fangear entrepreneur ending badly and painfully. He worked with the NFL to relinquish his rights to the Harbowl and Harbaughbowl trademarks (not clear if the NFL subsequently picked them up). Think it should have ended with some form of compensation by the NFL to Fox, but hard to say that is wrong from the outside from reading a single news account.

As an Eagles fan, sorry that Andy Reid never got an SB ring before he left town, but cautiously optimistic that Chip Kelly will usher in a new era of winning football in Philadelphia, I will leave you with a local take on next week’s “Big Game” from a young lady who goes by the great brand of PhilaDehlia. She is evidently an expert prognosticator for SB Nation (9 out of 10 playoff picks) and she will tell you why the Baltimore Ravens are her predicted winner since the E-A-G-L-E-S’s are not participating this year.

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