Friday, March 22, 2013

A Brief History of the NCAA’s Coveted Trademark, “March Madness”

By Conor Flahive

The importance of the “March Madness” men’s basketball tournament to the viability of the NCAA is well publicized. According to the NCAA, most of the organization’s revenue comes from its 14-year, $10.8 billion agreement with Turner Broadcasting and CBS Sports for the tournament’s television rights. But how important is the actual term “March Madness” to the NCAA? A brief look into the trademark history of the term provides the answer.


In the 2005 case March Madness Ath. Ass’n, LLC v. Netfire, Inc., the 5th Circuit upheld a lower court’s ruling that the phrase “March Madness” was a protectable trademark because it was a descriptive term that had acquired secondary meaning related to basketball in the public. For the NCAA, the phrase acquired a secondary meaning thanks to broadcaster Brent Musburger, who first used the term to describe the NCAA’s Final Four tournament in 1982, similar to Katherine Webb ascertaining public status thanks to good old Brent.

After “March Madness” caught on with the media and the general public, by the early 1990s the NCAA began licensing the use of the term “March Madness” to producers of goods and services related to its own tournament. As the men’s basketball tournament eventually grew into the nation’s second most valuable sports showcase for advertisers, the NCAA no longer wanted to license the rights to “March Madness” -- it wanted to own the rights.

Since the early 1940s, the Illinois High School Association (IHSA), sponsor of the nationally broadcasted Illinois High School Basketball Tournament, has used the term “March Madness” to designate its tournament, held every year in March. After the Chicago-based production firm Interpol took out the original trademark for the term “March Madness” in 1987, the ISHA agreed to give Intersport limited license to the phrase. Eventually, the ISHA would relinquish ownership of the trademark in order to retain use of the term in connection with its high school basketball championship. Intersport was now the only barrier between the NCAA’s outright ownership of the term “March Madness.”

So how much is the term “March Madness” worth?

To the NCAA, the answer is at least $17.2 million, the price it paid Intersport in 2010 for sole ownership of the trademark rights to the term “March Madness.”

So as you cozy up in a local pub with friends, head to the games, or sit back with a bowl of popcorn and watch from home this March, remember: what you're watching is more than just student-athletes vying for a national championship. The NCAA men's basketball tournament is a gold mine, and the NCAA will not hesitate to hit you with a lawsuit if you print "March Madness" t-shirts for your local pool.