Trademarks, Sports, and Superstition: Why a Premature Filing Could Cost You

Superstition and sports go hand in hand. Not talking about a no-hitter or a shutout when they are happening, the Madden NFL cover athlete curse, or the “playoff beard” have all become part of sports lore and superstition over the years. But what about filing a trademark during the playoffs?

Recently, on December 29, 2019, ahead their divisional wild card playoff game, the Minnesota Vikings football team filed a trademark for “GO GET IT” and “IF YOU WANT IT, GO GET IT”. The Vikings went on to win their divisional wild card game, but were knocked out this past weekend by the San Francisco 49ers. With the Vikings now out of the playoffs, could an ambitious filing be to blame for their early departure?

In sports, strategic and opportunistic trademarks are nothing out of the ordinary. Earlier this year, rookie basketball sensation Zion Williamson uttered the words “Let’s dance” during an interview after being drafted first overall by the New Orleans Pelicans. Less than 24 hours later, both Williamson and the New Orleans Pelicans filed competing applications for the mark “LET’S DANCE”. Other notable examples include, Marshawn Lynch’s trademark for “I’M JUST HERE SO I WON’T GET FINED” and Johnny Manziel’s “JOHNNY FOOTBALL”.

There are certainly plenty of benefits of a trademark registration. However, in the deeply superstitious world of sports, history has shown that applicants might want to think twice about when they file for protection. Here are two examples of trademark applications gone wrong in sports:

Pat Riley’s “three-peat”

With five NBA Championships, Pat Riley is one of the greatest NBA coaches of all time. However, in November 1988, ahead of the 1988-89 season, and following back-to-back championships with the Los Angeles Lakers, Pat Riley got a little overconfident and registered the words “THREE-PEAT” with the US Patent and Trademark Office. While the Lakers made it to the NBA Finals that season, they were swept by the Detroit Pistons, ultimately never completing the “three-peat”.

As fortune would have it, Riley would have a second chance at the “three-peat” years later as an executive with the Miami Heat. Again, following back-to-back championships in 2012 and 2013, the Heat fell to the San Antonio Spurs in 2014.

The New England Patriots and “19-0”

The New England Patriots might be closest thing to football perfection since Tom Brady joined the team in 2001. Since 2001, the Patriots have not had a losing season, have only missed the playoffs twice, and have won six Super Bowls. However, despite plenty of opportunity, the Patriots have never completed the fabled 19-0 perfect season. The closest the Patriots came to a perfect season was the 2007-08 season where they finished the regular season a perfect 16-0.

However, a couple weeks before Super Bowl XLII, the Kraft Group, owners of the New England Patriots, applied for trademark protection for “19-0”, a nod to their then perfect season. In one of the biggest Super Bowl upsets of all time, the 2007 Patriots fell to the underdog New York Giants 17-14. Ultimately, the mark was not used in the way it was intended, but the application was kept alive, and registered in 2016.

What these examples tell us, is that in the world of sports, particularly when championships are on the line, it might be best to develop notoriety in a mark prior to filing for protection.

Written by Alexandre Dumais, IPilogue Editor and JD Candidate at Osgoode Hall Law School. Alexandre is also the Director of Sports, Osgoode Entertainment and Sports Law Association.

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