Trademark Risks of Fundraising Around Major Sporting Events

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Nonprofits may be tempted to view major sporting events like the Super Bowl, the NBA Finals, or the World Series as a fundraising rallying point. Perhaps donors are asked to buy tickets to an event where the game will be on television, or they’re invited to a “watch party” where a raffle will be held. But nonprofits need to be cautious about how they brand such events, because every sports organization, from the NCAA to the NFL, NBA, and Major League Baseball, aggressively defends its trademarks.

The name of virtually every important sporting event has been registered as a trademark with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO). Along with names, leagues also register logos and other designs as part of a broad effort to protect their brands from misappropriation by others. If someone other than the registered trademark’s owner uses the mark in commerce (which one should assume includes fundraising activities), the owner can sue to stop the use and potentially demand additional damages, such as attorney’s fees, from the infringing party.

Businesses that organize events around sports either pay for licenses to use official names and logos in their promotions, or they find creative ways to avoid them. Although “Super Bowl” is a registered trademark, “the big game” is not. That’s why you might hear an ad encouraging people to come to a bar for “the year’s most important game” instead of using the protected terms. Nonprofits may be able to follow a similar strategy for their own events.

Always bear in mind that showing broadcasts of sporting events can raise other considerations, such as whether the organization needs to obtain a license to show an event to a large audience. Events that will serve alcohol will also need to comply with local licensing rules and consider buying event insurance, among other things.

The Church Law Center of California assists religious and secular nonprofits with governance, fundraising, and compliance. If your organization is considering holding an event centered around sports, we can help you ensure that issues like trademark don’t create unnecessary risk. Call us today at (949) 892-1221 or reach out to us through our contact page.

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