Last week WTR outlined commercialisation strategies for personal brands in light of soccer star Gareth Bale’s world record transfer to Real Madrid. For companies wanting to establish commercial relationships with sport personalities, the key is to establish relationships as early as possible. Yet when it comes to student athletes in the US, additional barriers exist. College football sensation Johnny Manziel – or ‘Johnny Football’ as he is more popularly known – is at the center of several trademark infringement lawsuits which highlight the difficulties facing student athletes and the brands wishing to work with them.

The Texas A&M quarterback has quickly become a fan and media favourite, yet under college rules is not allowed to profit from the ‘Johnny Football’ brand that has become associated with him. Shane Hinckley, assistant vice president in Texas A&M University’s business development office, explains: “The NCAA is very clear. A player’s name, image, likeness or nickname cannot be used by the institution or by a private individual to sell merchandise.”

In an example of the rules in practice, last month the NCAA announced it would bench Manziel for half of Texas A&M’s season opener against Rice University after finding that, although there was no evidence that Manziel received payment for signing autographs, he did violate the rule barring student athletes from permitting the use of their names and likeness for commercial purposes (somewhat ironically, the NCAA recently announced that he will be allowed to keep any money he wins in his lawsuits immediately, and not if or when he turns professional).

However, JMAN2 Enterprises LLC, a company registered to Manziel’s family, recently learnt of two companies that were selling T-shirts bearing the slogan ‘Johnny Football’. Actions were subsequently filed against Eric Vaughn, as well as Kevin Doolan and his business Cubby Tees, for selling ‘Keep Calm and Johnny Football’, ‘Johnny Football’ and ‘Johnny Heisman’ T-shirts on their respective websites (see here andhere).

Texas A&M have also sent Vaughn and Doolan cease and desist requests regarding sales of the shirts, a move that reflects the school’s own rights in related merchandise (the Manziel family had worked in conjunction with the university to protect the trademark and the player’s likeness). As Rick Reilly said in arecent article for ESPN: “His school, Texas A&M, is making the GNP of Kuwait off him in jersey sales and T-shirt sales and ticket sales and donations and anything else it can dream up.”

While seeking to protect the brand being built around Manziel’s nickname, with an eye on future commercialisation once he leaves the amateur football field, the current inability to cash in also restricts brands from establishing commercial ties with the player.

As with any brand there is a challenge to establish an early relationship between the brand owner and other companies in order to effectively monetise the brand. However, in cases such as this, the rule may benefit any future relationships. David Weild, partner at Edwards Wildman Palmer, suggests that athletic prowess and reputation are usually the major points of interest to companies, such as sports equipment makers, when contemplating a product endorser, and that this should be preserved and enhanced as a matter of first priority. For those who might be interested in becoming affiliated with a sportsperson like Manziel, then, Weild suggests that such parties should exercise restraint because not doing so may well destroy the coveted value of the sportsperson’s brand. In the meantime, the athlete’s efforts to protect the brand will increase the ultimate payoff.

Weild adds: “The hope of future commercialisation may well depend upon present restraint and not attempting to seize every apparent commercial opportunity. At the same time, where use of a sobriquet misleads, confuses or deceives the consumer into believing the products have been made, designed, approved or authorised by a sportsperson and the fact that they are not could damage, diminish or degrade a reputation and future commercial value, then one should be entitled to take action.”

The key for Manziel, then, is building and protecting the brand so it is in a strong position to capitalise once he joins the paid ranks – something his advisers seem well aware of. As his fellow Heisman Trophy winner Tim Tebow can attest – carrying a strong brand into the NFL will ensure future corporate tie-ups quickly recover any lost commercial ground. For brand owners waiting to capitalise, it is time to start saving that marketing spend.

This blog was first published in World Trademark Review on 6 September 2013

Editorial Credit:Black Russian Studio / Shutterstock.com 

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