American high schools are facing a new challenge as universities become more possessive of their brand. Nationwide, high schools are scrambling to redesign team logos under threat of trademark-infringement suits as big-name universities such as Penn State, Notre Dame, University of Iowa, University of Texas and Texas Tech University issue warnings to high school teams informing them of trademark violations.
Bert Borgmann, assistant commissioner of the Colorado High School Athletics Association, told The Denver Post, “Some people are very protective of their brand, and in this day and age, money seems to be ruling a lot of sports beyond the high school realm. It’s really part of the business of sports that nobody really thinks about.”
Occasionally, a university will grant a high school a license at low cost that allows for restricted use of a similar logo, but if they are unwilling to compromise, the high school might be facing a cost of thousands of dollars to replace the emblem on uniforms, scoreboards, signage and equipment for the team, as well as on stationery and websites for the schools. A college team trademark case has never gone as far as the courts, as high schools usually do not have the means to stand up to them.
According to Lee Green, professor of sports and business law at Baker University in Kansas, hundreds of high schools have received cease-and-desist letters from universities in the last five years over logos, mascots or nicknames that are too similar to those used by college or university brands. In some cases, a single university might issue as many as 50 letters to various high schools.
Green attributes the mass of suits to the fact that high school teams are more in the public eye due to the rise in social media use, which poses a threat to the potential of colleges and universities to generate income from trademark merchandise and to compete with other programs.
Mobilized by the recent hype and the reasonable fear of a lawsuit, Old Thornton High School of Colorado recently contacted Texas Tech to bring their own copycat logo to the attention of university officials. Thornton was too late to be included in any kind of trademark agreement, but the university refrained from issuing a deadline for the school to update its logo. Thornton will be able to phase out the trademark logo organically as worn out uniforms are replaced. “There will be virtually no cost to us,” said Thornton High principal Jennifer Skrobela.
Thornton is using this as an opportunity to tap into their fan base and foster school pride, with 1,7000 members of the school and community contributing ideas for the redesigned logo. “It really was a bonding event for the school,” said Skrobela.
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