“March Madness”

In between March coming in like a lion and going out like a lamb is the multi-week long American tradition known simply as NCAA “March Madness”. A time when both diehard basketball fans and non-sports fans alike spend hours filing out their brackets hoping to win this year’s pool. (It’s estimated that companies will lose over three billion dollars in productivity over the next couple weeks as their employees sneak out of the office early to catch some of the games.)

But just how big of a deal is the NCAA Tournament, and what are those magical words “March Madness” actually worth?

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It’s often difficult, if not impossible, to determine the value of famous trademarks such as “March Madness” (that being said the NCAA paid over $17 million just to have the exclusive rights to use the mark in programing for mobile devices back in 2011). However, to put things in perspective, the NCAA Tournament is arguably the biggest sporting event in the United States. This year companies looking to partake in the madness will spend about $1.1 billion dollar in television ads alone (about three times the amount spent on the Super Bowl). Meanwhile Philadelphia (one of four cities to host the “Sweet Sixteen” and “Elite Eight” (both registered trademarks)) is expected to fetch $18.2 million; while Houston, the host of the fabled “Final Four” (also a registered trademark), is expecting upwards of $300 million of economic impact from the tournament.

Given these numbers, it’s not surprising that the NCAA is in the middle of a 14 year, $10.8 billion broadcasting deal with CBS Sports and Turner Broadcasting. All things considered, the NCAA Tournament accounts for roughly 90% of NCAA revenue (sorry football).

None of the above figures include the equally stunning numbers from brackets and betting. Las Vegas sources estimate $9 billion will be wagered legally on the NCAA tournament (with about $7 billion being illegal betting).

So given all of the hoopla (no pun intend), where did the term March Madness actually originate? While one might suspect a bunch of partners at an advertising agency coming up with the idea after an eventful St. Patrick’s Day; in reality the term was coined by Henry Porter as the title of a 1939 essay for the Illinois High School Athlete, describing the Illinois High School Association’s (IHSA) basketball tournament.

The IHSA officially began using the term in 1973 in conjunction with its tournament, claiming exclusive rights to it and even licensing the use of “March Madness” to the likes of Pepsi and Wilson Sporting Goods. However, the IHSA did not officially apply for a trademark registration until 1990.

Unfortunately for the IHSA, the NCAA began using the term March Madness in 1982 (eight years prior to the IHSA’s trademark application) to describe the NCAA Tournament and also begun licensing its use much the dismay of the IHSA.

As often happens when companies don’t register and/or police there trademarks, the courts had to step in and straighten things out. In Illinois High School Association v. GTE Vantage Inc., the courts decided that due to the IHSA not policing its rights, both the NCAA and the IHSA had rights to the mark “March Madness” despite the IHSA being the first to use the mark. In its decision the court ruled that the mark had acquired multiple meanings. Needless to say, someone at the IHSA was probably fired.

The IHSA and NCAA have since formed the March Madness Athletic Association, dedicated to suing infringers of the mark. While the parties were able to reach an agreement, the IHSA would have been in a much better financial situation had they registered and policed the mark at an earlier stage. The takeaway is simple: register and police your trademarks or you might lose a lot more than just this year’s office pool.