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Basketball, Brackets and Branding: Protecting March Madness

Tuesday, 21 March 2017

I've been working with the NCAA since about 2000. Kind of an interesting story as to how we started working on it ...

I used to represent the folks in Illinois who sanction Illinois high school sports. Every state has a state high school sports body that creates the rules for the tournaments and eligibility. The Illinois high school basketball tournament was called March Madness since the 1940s.

An Illinois state reporter named Brent Musburger got a break in about 1980 to go to CBS. He started covering the NCAA Championship in about 1980 and he brought the phrase with him, having been familiar with it from covering the tournament in Peoria, Illinois. From the '80s on, two streams of rights grew up - one on the high school level, and one on the college level. As merchandise licensing got to be something that sports properties were focused on, they started clashing with each other.

I got involved when they were fighting with each other and was able to convince them that their real fight was not with each other but with other people who were going to be able to exploit the fact that this conflict would create a vacuum for them. We created a joint entity, consolidated the rights, licensed it back out for college and high school separately, and then used that newfound consolidated rights to go out and make the world safe for March Madness.

The first thing we did, actually the day after we consolidated the rights, was sue the owner of MarchMadness.com, who had bought the URL and was planning to develop a site around the basketball tournament.

Balancing Fan Engagement and Brand Protection in Sports

In looking at protecting teams' IP, you have to balance the desire and necessity to tap into the opportunities to engage fans in ways that don't ultimately undermine or devalue your brand. You see this in some of the enforcement efforts that people undertake. Think about in the NCAA context - bracket contests. I do a lot of work with the NCAA. We have sponsors who pay us a lot of money and they do things with bracket contests that we don't allow other people to do.

Sometimes you can have a tendency to want to over-enforce against other people who are doing bracket contests, but I think you have to keep in mind, and I do remind the client, if nobody's doing bracket contests, we're all worse off. In some ways we need people to spend too much time during the day doing their bracket contest - being engaged and involved, even if they're things that are kind of outside of our purview. We can't devalue what it is that the sponsors are getting. We need to make sure that they're feeling like they're getting value. So I think you have to strike a balance.

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