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NCAA mounts full-court press on trademark violations

Using 'March Madness' in an ad without authorization could prompt a letter from a lawyer.

March 19, 2009|Alana Semuels

March Madness tips off today, and college basketball's lawyers have their game faces on.

The annual hoops tournament can lower workplace productivity, raise blood pressure and drain wallets of cash wagered in office pools. But the National Collegiate Athletic Assn. says the competition also triggers a flood of unauthorized use of the NCAA's trademarks as companies include terms such as "March Madness" and "Final Four" in advertising to attract customers.

The activity seems to be increasing as the economy worsens. The NCAA expects to send hundreds of cease-and-desist letters this year to websites, bars, casinos and even major companies that use its trademarks without permission, said Jay Rossello, its director of legal affairs.

"The downward economy has created a spike in unauthorized activity," said Doug Masters, a partner at law firm Loeb & Loeb who's an outside counsel for the NCAA. "When times are tough, instead of spending your money to get sales, you try to leverage off of other people's investments."

The NCAA has to protect its trademarks to maintain their value. Letting any business offer an "Elite Eight Special," for example, hurts the association's ability to get top dollar from official sponsors, lawyers say.

That means allowing no posters on doors of casinos inviting people to March Madness gambling, no Internet ads luring people to websites where they can buy unauthorized March Madness gear and no March Madness Web banners trying to get people to bars or events that aren't NCAA sponsors.

The Internet has made it easier for businesses to try to profit from the tournament by creating unofficial bracket pools and smart phone applications. As CBS, the tournament's official TV network, makes more of the games available for live viewing online, websites also can take the feeds without permission to attract visitors.

In past years, the NCAA has scared online travel companies into pulling offers for Final Four trips and blocked online casinos from pitching March Madness promotions.

This year, the association waged a successful fight against an adult website running a bracket-style tournament featuring porn stars and explicit puns on the trademarked basketball terms. It also looks closely at ticket promoters implying that they have a connection to the NCAA.

One of the latest targets is NASA, the federal space agency. The NCAA recently asked NASA to stop advertising Mission Madness, which lets fans vote on its greatest-ever mission. The promotion featured a bracket system like that used in the college tournament as well as basketball icons.

"There was no reason to use basketballs," Masters said.

An agency spokeswoman said she knew nothing about any complaints from the NCAA. Mission Madness remains online.

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alana.semuels@latimes.com

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