Trademarks are a useful and valuable tool for business owners and organizations. They help companies and their products stand out by providing brand recognition. Without trademarks, consumers wouldn’t know the difference between a pair of Nike gym shoes and Adidas gym shoes. Colleges are no different. With trademarks, colleges can sell products, entice students to enroll, lure sports fans, and much more. Trademarks allow colleges to keep others from profiting on their name or likeness, which would take away funds needed to support them.
College sports draw large crowds who associate with the trademarks of their favorite college team. Within college sports, football draws some of the largest numbers of spectators. And this past year was particularly noteworthy with college football’s first national playoff. In fact, the games made history for ESPN as it boasted the two largest audiences of its time with more than 28 million viewers for both the Sugar Bowl and the Rose Bowl—the two bowls that would determine which teams would play in the national championship. It turns out that the bowl games were just a precursor to the largest audience in ESPN’s history with the national championship attracting 33 million viewers.
If the first year is any sign of future playoffs, then the College Football Playoff should experience successful outcomes apart from this year. Could it become as popular as Super Bowl? There may be potential. However, one thing the Super Bowl has going for it over the College Football Playoff is its name. Super Bowl is unique and specific to the NFL championship game. The name is simple and flows effortlessly when pronounced, making it easy to remember. On the other hand College Football Playoff doesn’t stand out and has a generic ring to it. In fact, the USPTO has rejected it for being too descriptive and generic.
Trademarks fall into five categories of distinctiveness: generic, descriptive, arbitrary, suggestive, and fanciful. These categories lend directly to trademark strength in a legal context. Generic and descriptive trademarks generally represent the weakest strength, with generic having no value (e.g., aspirin). Descriptive marks can be valuable when they take on a second meaning (McDonald’s), which means that there is some public meaning beyond the obvious meaning of the terms comprising the trademark. Suggestive marks suggest a quality or characteristic of the good or service that it represents (e.g., Florida’s Natural branded orange juice). Arbitrary and fanciful trademarks represent the strongest trademarks. Arbitrary marks tend to describe goods or services that otherwise have no relation (e.g., Amazon, Apple). Fanciful marks tend to describe goods or services that likely have no other precedent in the market (e.g., Lipitor).
Generally, fanciful marks represent the strongest trademarks. These work the best because there is no other precedent in the market. Often, the best trademarks are unique, catchy, memorable, and recognizable. Therefore, in order for the College Football Playoff organization to fully capitalize on its trademark, it should create a unique name that spectators worldwide can identify with. Something that is easy to remember, yet sticks out. While the organization indicates it wanted something simple and descriptive, the trademark does little for marketing efforts. How does College Football Playoff create revenue? It’s a long mark that many people would use in general terms. It’s not catchy. If it is too complicated or generic, it does no favors for the organization. Imagine if the Super Bowl were titled Pro Football Playoff. It wouldn’t carry significant meaning. As it stands, advertisers cannot use the term Super Bowl. They must use other forms of identifying the championship game because the NFL has full ownership of the use of the word Super Bowl. This is what a good trademark affords an owner. While the College Football Playoff organization argues that its mark is distinctive among the demographic being served, so far the USPTO has yet to agree. In the meantime, the organization cannot prevent others from using the term. Therefore, it loses revenue-generating opportunities. While the name probably won’t stop sports fans from watching or attending games, the organization would probably build more brand recognition if its name were more fanciful.