The (Sort Of) Crazy Story of “March Madness”

People love March Madness. There’s no other competition in the United States so open ended. More than 60 of the nation’s premier college basketball teams compete with triumphs, upsets, and finish with an undisputed champion. Diehard and casual fans of college basketball fill out more than 40 million brackets each year trying and predict the winner. Even the president is in on it, and he’s no slouch. His bracket is currently ranked in the 98th percentile. March Madness lives up to its name. But it’s more than pure sports entertainment, there’s a fascinating legal aspect to its existence as well. The trademark “March Madness” was settled more than fifteen years ago when the courts decided the moniker was so important it deserved to be reclassified. Papers labeled it “case of the year” in trademark law.

The phrase march Madness actually began use as early as in 1939 when the term was included in a poem about the March tournament. The Illinois High School Association (“IHSA”) later applied it to their annual basketball tournament. It was billed as the premier high school tournament of the United States. It was even broadcast on national television. The IHSA filed for federal registration in the early 1990s, and received protection a few years later.

As they included more teams, the event grew in notoriety. In the early 1980s a Chicago sports caster began referring to the event as “March Madness” and it stuck. Importantly, the term was widely applied to the event by the public before the NCAA ever used it themselves. So when the IHSA filed for trademark of the phrase March Madness, the NCAA objected under their common law usage. The IHSA then filed suit against GTE Vantage, Inc., which was developing a basketball sport video game, licensed by the NCAA, called “NCAA Championship Basketball”. The words ‘March Madness’ were included on the cover and in the game itself.

This was a case of reverse confusion. The NCAA was the more recognizable establishment than the IHSA so the trademark became associated with them by the public. Even though the IHSA used the term far longer than the NCAA, they worried that their trademark would suffer brand confusion, or their tournaments would be misinterpreted as sponsored by the NCAA. Normally the senior user of a mark would stop the junior from applying it. But when the case came to court, the judge ruled otherwise. The Central District of Illinois judge decided the IHSA’s brand had become diluted by the NCAA. Its connotation created by the public sphere made a ‘dual-use term’ that applied to both users equally. The IHSA couldn’t control what the public applied the term ‘March Madness’ to, no matter how much it might damage their brand.

Forced to share the mark, the two organizations eventually created a limited liability corporation, the Match Madness Athletic Association (“MMAA”), to control the trademark. Both partners were made permanent licensors. The MMAA has protected the term “March Madness” since in court cases against other prospective sporting events, car sales, and website name infringement. In latter cases they found from their focus group that 83.7% of people had heard of March Madness and 70% associated the term with basketball.

Though the mark is strong in popular culture, it’s important to remember how it can serve as a wider lesson. Do not let your trademark lose its public significance, and take all efforts to make sure the public is aware of its real intention and application. Allowing your trademark to become public domain or synonymous with another product is self-defeating. Just like how picking teams for your bracket based on the ferocity of their mascots doesn’t do you any good and is self-defeating. Or ‘self-defeating’ like Florida State. Or Duke. You get the picture.

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