SBJ/July 6-12, 1998/This Weeks News

NFL successfully protects turf in two trademark court fights

The NFL came out on top in a pair of trademark battles that could have widespread ramifications.

In a federal court case in Wisconsin, a judge dismissed a lawsuit brought by a man who applied for a trademark for the phrase “The St. Louis Rams” in Wisconsin before NFL or team officials filed the paperwork in Missouri in connection with the Rams’ move from Los Angeles. The judge, citing previous case law, ruled that “trademark priority does not go to the first party to make use of the mark … but the first party for whom the mark serves as a designation of source.”

In other words, it’s not who gets to the trademark office first, but who the public associates the trademark with. NFL officials were trumpeting the fact that this could extend to team slogans coined by fans or the media. Crafty entrepreneurs have often tried to trademark such slogans and charge a fee for their use on merchandise.

In a separate dispute, the California wine company Delicato Vineyards agreed to pay damages and stop manufacturing wine bottles that depicted former NFL players wearing their team uniforms but with the logos airbrushed out. The company had a deal in place with the players but not the league.

The NFL has been trying to stop the fairly common practice of companies depicting their spokesmen in uniforms with their teams’ colors and striping but not logos. In the last couple of years, the league has gotten the consumer electronics chain Nobody Beats the Wiz to alter several of its ads, which pictured New York-area football players in generic green or blue jerseys similar to those of the Jets and Giants.

*Texas billionaire Tom Hicks is painting his coming acquisition of Host Communications and Universal Sports America as offering immediate synergies that will help create a regional sports network. As he told The Dallas Morning News: “As we put together our regional sports company between now and the end of the year, this gives us content and relationships with universities that we didn’t have.”

But what do Host and USA really bring to the table in content? In few cases are they the actual rights holders of broadcasts. Generally, Host and USA represent universities in an agency capacity.

Company officials at Host and USA said their understanding is that both companies – which are affiliated through Host’s 34 percent share in USA – will remain distinct business units.

Another question looming over Hicks is whether he’ll try to take on Fox directly or create a second Texas affiliate for the Fox Sports Network. Fox Sports Southwest is the busiest regional sports network, with broadcast rights to six teams, including the Hicks-owned Texas Rangers and Dallas Stars. Those teams’ contracts are up for renewal and are the obvious linchpin of the RSN Hicks wants to launch.

Hicks met with Fox officials last week, but neither side would discuss the meeting.

There’s always the possibility the Hicks network will become aligned with ESPN in some form. ESPN officials have reportedly had informal discussions about providing non-primetime programming to RSNs not affiliated with Fox, possibly syndicating content developed for ESPN West.

*AT&T Wireless has signed Seattle Mariners Alex Rodriguez and Joey Cora as endorsers, as well as Arizona Diamondback Andy Benes. Discussions continue with Phoenix Suns coach Danny Ainge. The signings were spearheaded by Foot Cone & Belding, AT&T Wireless’ ad agency and its sports marketing agency of record for the Western region. FC&B officials said the deals are short-term (two years) because the wireless telephone service industry will probably use a more national marketing platform once a coast-to-coast network becomes better established.

FC&B’s sports marketing division has also signed the PGA Tour as a client, developing all advertising and communication for the coming World Golf Championships, and expects to sign Sun Microsystems as a client in the near term.

*In another megadeal between a sports property and a top marketing agency, international powerhouse ISL guaranteed CART $215 million to $235 million over nine years for the rights to represent the racing circuit in all sponsorship categories. ISL had been doing some work for Championship Auto Racing Teams Inc., generating about $12 million in sponsorship cash last year.

The largest marketing firms are waving huge dollars in front of midsize properties in hopes of landing all-encompassing agency relationships. As the industry consolidates and agencies gain a broader range of capabilities through acquisitions (research, production, etc.), it makes more sense to work with clients top to bottom rather than piecemeal.

ISL, which also signed a deal with the ATP Tour last week, will set up an office in Detroit to handle the CART business. It hopes to bring the CART sponsor portfolio beyond the automotive and beverage companies generating most of the circuit’s sponsorship income. An ISL official said the copier/fax category will likely be the first filled, then financial services.

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