Marketers who promote products or services associated with sporting events or sports marketing need to steer clear of trademarked or copyrighted catchwords or phrases that are the intellectual properties of corporate entities.

For example, companies that are not officially affiliated with the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) should be very careful what they say in their marketing campaigns now that NCAA Division I Men’s Basketball Tournament is underway. Watchdogs at the NCAA are on the lookout for marketers who try to cash in what has become one of the most financially lucrative and most watched sports events of the year.

The number of companies whose alliances as “corporate champions” or “corporate partners” of the NCAA are very few. For example, Coke, AT&T, Lowe’s, State Farm and UPS are among the companies having this status and entitles them to use terms or marks related to the college basketball tournament. Other companies have deals with the NCAA that enable them to legally use certain terms for a limited time only, such as Papa John’s.

There are phrases associated with the tournament that are widely used, but are registered, trademarked or copyrighted phrases, nevertheless. Following is only a partial list of some of these terms which are not authorized to non-affiliated marketers in their direct mail and other advertising:

  • “March Madness”
  • “NCAA Sweet Sixteen/NCAA Sweet 16″
  • “Elite Eight/Elite 8/Men’s Elite Eight”
  • “Final Four/Final 4/The Final Four”
  • “Road to the Final Four”
  • “The Road to Indianapolis”
  • “The Big Dance”
  • “NCAA Basketball”
  • “NCAA”

The NCAA takes its intellectual properties very seriously and it runs a “Trademark Protection Program” which is maintained by a full-time staff and plenty of lawyers. They have an official NCAA brochure that offers rules, regulations and penalties for marketers in much greater detail. The brochure is entitled, “Protecting Home Court Advantage.”

The NCAA uses the following official statement with regard to its position:

“Federal regulations support the NCAA’s efforts to prohibit the unauthorized use of the NCAA’s name and trademarks or any use of NCAA championship tickets in sweepstakes, promotions or contests, or any other unfair attempt to associate with or exploit the goodwill of any NCAA championship event . . . nor may NCAA trademarks be used on the Internet for commercial purposes.”

There is significant amount of money at stake in marketing campaigns making use of the buzz surrounding the tournament. According to the marketing and research firm Kantar Media in New York, the NCAA men’s basketball tournament was second only to the NFL (including the Super Bowl) in the total amount spent on national TV advertising during post-season events in 2009:

  • $753 million for the NFL (including Super Bowl XLIII)
  • $598 million for the NCAA men’s basketball tournament
  • $391 million for the Major League Baseball playoffs and World Series
  • $347 million for the NBA playoffs
  • $272 million for the NCAA’s college football bowl games

Clearly, marketers must consider these facts well in advance of entertaining any idea of promoting a product or service that relates to the NCAA Division I Men’s Basketball Tournament.

This doesn’t necessarily mean that marketers who are not affiliated with the NCAA need to avoid marketing products or services associated with the tournament altogether. It just means that they need to be creative (not deceptive) when building their marketing campaigns and be sure to use non-trademarked catch phrases in their direct mail campaigns and ad copy. Millions of potential customers who normally don’t follow college basketball are now paying attention.

In other words, non-affiliated marketers for a pizza restaurant can officially be mad about pizza in March, but if it isn’t Papa John’s, it is not allowed to be the “official pizza of NCAA March Madness.”

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