While it may be tempting to incorporate the frenzy surrounding the games into your company’s marketing efforts, it is important to be mindful that “March Madness” is a trademarked phrase.
History of the March Madness Trademark
Dating back to the 1940s, the Illinois High School Association (“IHSA”) used the phrase “March Madness” in connection with its annual boys’ high school basketball tournament. In 1995, IHSA acquired the service mark for the phrase and subsequently issued licenses to entities like Pepsi for use in connection with the men’s college basketball championship.
Meanwhile, the NCAA’s first use of the phrase took place in 1982, when CBS broadcaster Brent Musberger used it to describe the NCAA Tournament. The NCAA began licensing March Madness in 1988 as one of its trademarks relating to the basketball championships. Until the 1990s, both entities claimed exclusive rights to the phrase “March Madness.”
In 1996, IHSA sued an NCAA licensee, GTE Vantage, over the use of the phrase in a basketball video game. The Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals rejected IHSA’s trademark rights in relation to the NCAA Tournament. In the wake of the litigation, IHSA and NCAA created the March Madness Athletic Association LLC, to which each party transferred all intellectual property rights it held in connection with “March Madness.” The new entity then granted both the NCAA and the IHSA a license to use the term in connection with its basketball tournament.
The Legal Implications of Infringing the Mark
Unless your company obtains a license, use of the trademarked phrase and its associated logos is off-limits. As with Super Bowl promotions, businesses are generally permitted to put up a sign or publish an advertisement that says, “Come watch the March Madness games here,” or use the phrase in a way that simply describes that the games are being shown at a specific place and time.
Conversely, using the March Madness logo without authorization or otherwise suggesting an affiliation with the tournament can lead you in legal hot water. While the owners of the March Madness trademark may not be as aggressive as the NFL, they do police the use of their intellectual property, particularly at this time of year.
Given the significant trademark concerns, we encourage New Jersey and New York businesses to consult with an experienced attorney who can help ensure that any March Madness promotions do not result in unexpected liability.