Major League Soccer and their Supporter Groups battle over trademarks

It has been funny listening to Don Garber over the last 4 years talk to supporter groups about how important they are to the league and growth of sport in the United States, and then to watch MLS under his leadership tries to trademark rivalries created by those supporters.  It has also been funny to listen to how different groups have responded to the situation.  You would think that MLS would learn from their own mistakes, and missteps but they continue to just tromp around like a kid splashing in puddles after a rainstorm.  While the attention is all fixated on the Cascadia Cup, but it isn’t the only rivalry in question, and MLS isn’t the only one crossing lines.

Last year Real Salt Lake had an ambitious sales person sell a sponsorship to the Rocky Mountain Cup, a fan based rivalry between Real Salt Lake and the Colorado Rapids.  This caused a minor uproar as RSL rolled out a logo featuring Subaru as the sponsor of the Rocky Mountain Cup, before the fans responsible for the creation of the rivalry and supplying the trophy knew anything about it.  Now in the end both the management of RSL and the Supporters behind the RMC came to an agreement about the sponsorship, but imagine the good will that was lost by not communicating, by not having an agreement in place before selling a sponsorship.

So fast forward 9 months and you have MLS filing paperwork to trademark the names of most of the current MLS fan based rivalries, did they reach out to the supporter groups to discuss this beforehand?  No, strange considering how much smoke Don Garber has blown at those groups over the years, chalk it up to the same decision making that lead MLS to use an image of Portland Timbers fans (some of whom were arrested) lighting off flares to promote some playoff matches (the Timbers didn’t make the playoffs).

So why would MLS seek to trademark the rivalries that have been created by the fans?  Well, Don Garber would have you believe it is to “protect” them, here is their quote on the matter:

“With the interests of the MLS clubs in the Pacific Northwest and our fans in mind, Major League Soccer applied for a trademark to the name ‘Cascadia Cup,’” the statement reads. “A registered trademark would put Major League Soccer in a position to protect the brand from exploitation by parties unaffiliated with the League and its supporters.”

mlssoccer.com

 

It was in that article on the MLS website that they stated they were working on a meeting with the various supporter groups (something that I am un-aware of being scheduled in the 11 days since that statement).  I asked myself, what party not affiliated with the league or the various supporter groups would seek to exploit the term “Cascadia Cup” or any of the other rivalry names?  I mean are they looking to protect themselves from a potential t-shirt vendor printing up a couple dozen shirts and selling them without MLS getting their cut?  In the 8 year of the Rocky Mountain Cup, I don’t know of any exploitation other than what was done by Real Salt Lake.  The Cascadia Cup, existed before any of the three teams involved were part of Major League Soccer, in fact those clubs have had a rivalry that existed long before MLS was even a league. I wonder if MLS could provide a single instance of “Cascadia Cup”, “Rocky Mountain Cup” or any of the other trademarks they are applying for being “exploited by parties unaffiliated with the league or the supporters”?

The two things that really strike me as odd about this are, the timing and the response of MLS after their initial efforts were found out.   First the timing, why now?  Was there some impending threat against one of the rivalry names?  Or was it simply the time MLS starts talking to sponsors (their big meetings that go along with the MLS draft) and TV partners?  It just seems odd to me, but that is probably something we will never know the real answer to.

The second however is when things get really interesting, remember that Don Garber has told the Supporter Groups often that they are the future of the league, but last week when pushed on the topic at the MLS draft, he made this statement:

“[MLS can] ensure that it’s controlled. Prospective fan groups, in theory, could offer that trademark to a competitive sponsor,” Garber said. “They can take that trademark and sell it to a promoter. They can produce merchandise that’s not merchandise that we would want associated with our teams or with our league.”

mlssoccer.com

 

So much for any trust that existed between the supporter groups and their league, this comes down to MLS wanting to make sure if anyone cashes in on the rivalry names, it is them.  Are they worried that Timbers Army or ECS might work a deal with Nike to create a t-shirt for them?  Or that Section 8 might work directly with a scarf manufacture to create a “Brimstone Cup” scarf (oh wait MLS basically killed that rivalry with their new schedule format).  Really, Don Garber is saying he doesn’t trust the supporter groups with their own creations, and it doesn’t even take one reading between the lines. As a FYI, MLS is also seeking trademarks on California Clasico, The Heritage Cup, The Lamar Hunt Pioneer Cup, The Rocky Mountain Cup, The Texas Derby, and the Trillium Cup.

Legally MLS probably will win this fight, but no matter what happens they have lost the battle, they have gone out of their way to insult the supporters that they say are the key to growth of the league.  Time will heal the wounds for many, but when you wonder why it is that most supporter groups have issues with their own front offices, or with MLS’s attempts to influence them, things like this are what causes bad feelings and mistrust that can last generations.

MLS could do one thing that I think would put this issue behind them, prove that it isn’t a grab for control or to monetize something they didn’t create.  Sign an agreement with all the supporter groups involved that gives the groups rights to use the trademarked terms in any non-commercial uses they want, and agree to give the groups 50% of any and all profits made by selling or monetizing the rivalry names.  I don’t expect that to happen, but MLS the ball is still in your court on this mess.  Just because you can do something, doesn’t mean you should, and it sure doesn’t mean doing it without involving all the parties involved.

That’s How I See It

 

5 comments

  1. Rob says:

    What makes you think MLS can win the legal side of this? I’ll admit I don’t know alot about trademark law, but Ive been told that the Cascadian Council has a very solid case and that MLS’s chances of winning in court are slim at best. If you think the Cascadian Council doesn’t have legitamite lawyers who can take on MLS’s corporate suits, you’re mistaken.

    • admin says:

      I think MLS wins because they own the entities that make up the rivalries, then factor in that Trademarks about the good and/or services that are being protected, not about the name itself. While the Cascadia Cup may predate the teams involved joining MLS, in its current form the brands involved in the Cascadia Cup are property of MLS. So legally I think they probably end up winning if this is fought.

      Of course winning may not be winning for MLS, as the cost could be more than what they end up winning.

  2. Matt Thompson says:

    The 5th paragraph sums up eloquently the issue MLS is trying to avoid. If exploitation were to occur; such an instance would already have taken place. None has: therefore, MLS is trying to take the branding for personal monetary gains or for some other shady intention as I see it.

  3. Zig says:

    All SGs involved in these cup competitions should unite to form an SG Council. You’d have more leverage that way. Let MLS know you intend to stage SG walk-outs in the middle of high profile televised games, and that you will launch a massive PR campaign at the start of the season (press releases to all major sports publications, full page newspaper ads, etc) publicizing this intellectual property theft to the world. That will get their attention, since their marketing plan this year is to tell everyone how fun and enjoyable MLS supporters culture is. There’s actually a lot you guys can do if you unite and take action.

  4. FCBeast says:

    National trademarks take more than a year to be approved. If MLS does win the battle and is awarded the trademarks what is to stop the SGs from just creating a different named cup. Two can play at this underhanded game. It would take MLS another few years to obtain that new trademark and then the SGs will just change the name again. MLS can’t win that cat and mouse game and will come out looking even more devious than they already do.

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