The NFL season kicks off today. Today, NFL is widely recognized as the #1 sport in America, having replaced our “national pastime,” baseball. I’m sure there are many reasons for this change over the last generation. One key to the success of the NFL is its branding.  NFL players themselves are often barely recognizable. The viewers and fans know them in uniforms and helmets. NFL uniforms only appears in commercials from sponsors and I’m sure after a process of review and approval. 

The NFL is a branding machine. Sponsors line up to pay huge amounts to associate themselves with the NFL. Fans pay large sums for jerseys and other merchandise. How have they done it?

Part of the success is because the NFL  puts forth its brand in a cohesive manner. Their trademarks are well protected – most teams own USPTO trademark registration for  several variations of their logos, helmets designs and uniform designs. Only two brands, besides the NFL teams, are allowed to be a part of the game in any manner — Gatorade beverages and Motorola headsets worn by the coaches — and those rights come at a cost.

I recently browsed the Collective Bargaining Agreement (at 318 page it would be foolish to say I read it) between the NFL and the NFL Players Association (“NFLPA”). It contains significant provisions related to branding and licensing that provide some insight into how the NFL controls its brands to its advantage.

  • Every NFL player contract must include the NFLPA Group Licensing Program provisions.
  • The NFLPA Group Licensing Program clause (see page 256) grants widespread rights to the NFL including rights to use and to authorize others to use, in any format and for any purpose, a player’s:

persona (?!?)

voice, and 
“all other identifying characteristics”

  • Players must wear jerseys with sponsor logos if asked to.
  • The NFL and Clubs have the right to “regulate any third party branding or other commercial identification that may appear on any footwear or gloves worn by players”.  (With footwear and gloves being the only part of the uniform that players have any control over.)
  • On game days, from before the game until 90 minutes after the game – as well as at any training camp or practice – players must wear uniforms and other items as specified by the NFL or the team.
  • During any television interview on team premises, a player may not wear or display any item that displays any other logos or brand names other than those from the NFL.
  • The NFL can require any player to wear a tracking device for the purposes of broadcasting games.
  • NFL Films can mic any player during any game, except that no player will be required to wear a microphone more than 4 times during the regular season.

As a result, the NFL controls its brand – through its players – excessively.  And therefore the brand is cohesive, strong, and extremely valuable. If any player could endorse a cheap product and wear NFL merchandise in a commercial to make it look like the team or league was also endorsing it, the value of the NFL brand would be cheapened. If players could conduct interviews or practice where tee shirts promoting brands that complete with the NFL’s official licensing partners, the value of the licenses would be diminished. NFL has wisely made itself the brand king.

An article in the Wall Street Journal this week highlights just how valuable the NFL brand has become….”the league and PepsiCo Inc. are set to announce a 10-year, extension of their sponsorship deal that ultimately could be valued at $2.3 billion through the 2022 playoffs, making it one of the largest sponsorships to date in U.S. sports.”

Of course, don’t get me started on the Super Bowl®.

Tip: Even if your business is a minute fraction of the size of the NFL’s , your brand is just as important to your success. By properly using trademarks, registering them where possible, and when appropriate, controlling how they are used by employees and partners, any company can become the king or queen of its own brand.



© 2011 Erik M. Pelton. All Rights Reserved.

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