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Cal Poly Campus Aims to Keep Its Name, and Profits, to Itself

The state university system is in a legal battle with a small sporting goods merchant over the rights to the moniker.

August 17, 2003|Sally Ann Connell | Special to the Times

SAN LUIS OBISPO — What's in a name?

A lot, if you're Cal Poly.

For half a century, Bello's Sporting Goods has been selling Cal Poly hats and sweatshirts just steps away from the mission in this city's thriving downtown.

But officials at California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo, have realized the full potential in the "Cal Poly" moniker, as the university has evolved in the last decade into one of the most exclusive public colleges in the nation.

So Cal Poly wants its name back, in what some area residents view as a David and Goliath legal battle between the California State University system and the small, independent sporting goods merchant.

For decades, "Cal Poly" wear was sold on campus. But in 1993, the California Polytechnic Foundation began selling its own merchandise out of a downtown store, where it continues to sell "Cal Poly" teddy bears, pajamas, chocolate and T-shirts.

When the store opened, the university persuaded other merchants to stop selling unlicensed merchandise. Bello's refused, and the Board of Trustees of the Cal State system took the shop to court three years ago. Cal State views the case as precedent-setting, because of the ramifications it could have throughout the system's 23 campuses.

In 2001, a San Luis Obispo Superior Court judge ruled that the name "Cal Poly" was generic for any California college with technical majors, and that nothing in the state education code protected the name. Lobbyists for the system quickly and successfully pushed the California Legislature to amend the education code to protect the "Cal Poly" name, along with other Cal State nicknames.

Cal State used the rewritten education code to twice persuade the 2nd Appellate District Court that it owned the name. The most recent victory was July 30, when the appellate court ordered Bello's to pay some damages and remanded the case to Superior Court, where Bello's can argue the legality of the last-minute change in the education code.

Both the school and Bello's refuse to say exactly how much they make from the name. University foundation officials said they don't report those numbers.

"It's all part of the mix," said Tom Bello, the store's owner. "People buy a Cal Poly hat with other things. They'd miss it if we didn't have them."

Neil Tardiff, the San Luis Obispo attorney representing Bello's, plans to appeal the 2nd Appellate District's ruling to the California Supreme Court before returning to the lower court.

"The fact is that Cal Poly encouraged Mr. Bello to use this name for decades," Tardiff said. "The coaches ordered from him. He gave all the coaches discounts."

None of that can be undone by last-minute legislative maneuvering, Tardiff said. "They tried and failed to get a federal trademark on the name, because it is generic."

Wendy Lascher, the appellate attorney handling the case for the university system, argues in briefs that the federal trademark issue is irrelevant, and that the "Cal Poly" name is very specific in California. "CSU's concern in this lawsuit is not national. It is local," she wrote. Lascher would not comment on the case.

(California State Polytechnic University, Pomona, was the Southern California campus for its neighbor to the north before evolving into a separate institution. Both share the nickname "Cal Poly.")

The California Institute of Technology, whose name is often shortened to "Caltech," has filed a brief on Cal State's behalf.

Beyond the legal wrangling, one need only visit a grocery store on the Central Coast to see how frequently the Cal Poly name is used as a marketing device. Shoppers can buy brand-name "Cal Poly" eggs, cheese and ice cream.

From a public relations standpoint, university officials stressed that they have no problem with Bello, the 67-year-old owner of the store his parents founded in 1945. They also stressed that they are not trying to make Bello pay restitution for past sales, just to stop him from selling Cal Poly merchandise in the future.

"I don't think the issue is the amount of money involved, but the issue is protecting the university name and protecting the quality of merchandise sold with that name," said Clara Potes-Fellow, a spokeswoman for the Cal State chancellor's office in Long Beach.

Bello's is managing to hold onto a solid business just two blocks from Copeland's Sports -- a chain that was founded in downtown San Luis Obispo -- and less than three miles from Big 5 Sporting Goods by seeming to avoid cutting-edge sportswear.

"We're pretty middle of the road," Bello said, standing amid boxes of physical education uniforms for a private high school one recent afternoon. Much of the store's business lies in odd-sized soccer shoes for women, plain basketball shorts required by high school coaches and tiny shin guards.

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