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“Play Like a Champion Today”: When a Popular Phrase Becomes a Trademark

Few moments in college football are more iconic than Notre Dame football players hitting the famous “Play Like a Champion Today” sign as they run out of the tunnel onto the field at Notre Dame Stadium. Many may not realize (and certainly, the University of Oklahoma was surprised to learn) that the synonymous phrase “Play Like a Champion Today” could be trademarked by a private company. In this case, the phrase has been registered by Play Like A Champion Today LLC (PLACT), and PLACT has licensed the phrase for Notre Dame merchandise. 
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The trademark for “Play Like a Champion Today” was approved by the US Patent and Trademark Office in 2006 and published in 2008, although it was not Notre Dame that applied for the trademark. Rather, a company formed by the Wenger family, who created the illustrious sign in the Notre Dame tunnel, first registered the trademark. Eventually, PLACT, a consortium headed by legendary Notre Dame head coach Lou Holtz and former Notre Dame quarterback Rick Mirer, purchased the trademark from the Wengers entity and licensed the phrase to Notre Dame.

The University of Oklahoma, which displayed a similar “Play Like a Champion Today” for over fifty (50) years, was incensed, with Oklahoma Athletic Director Joe Castiglione stating, in regards to Holtz, “Wait a minute. He can’t copyright that. It’s not his to copyright.” Castiglione noted, “It’d be like one of us going out and trademarking ‘Sooner Magic,’” (which, coincidentally, is a registered trademark held by the University of Oklahoma Board of Regents).

The Seattle Seahawks ran into a similar issue with its use of the phrase the “12th Man,” in reference to the fans in their stadium. The “12th Man” is actually a registered trademark of Texas A&M University, whose crowd at Kyle Field is referred to as the “12th Man.” Texas A&M sued the Seahawks over its use of the phrase and the Seahawks wound up entering into a license agreement with Texas A&M, which contains an acknowledgment of Texas A&M’s ownership of the trademark.

Other examples across the college football landscape of surprising trademarks include: 

  • Syracuse University’s efforts to register the word mark “Orange,” leading to other universities who have orange in their colors (such as Tennessee), entering into licensing arrangements with Syracuse; and
  • Boise State University protecting its famous blue turf by securing a federal trademark on “non-green” playing surfaces, which allows the university to freely license some non-green fields to various universities while denying this right to others.

Using these phrases and other intellectual property as federal trademarks, however, has its limitations. Syracuse, for instance, could not trademark the color “Orange,” only its use as a nickname or moniker; hence, the arrangements with the University of Tennessee and Oklahoma State University. Boise State does not use its trademark to make money (i.e., it freely allows the use of other non-green fields), but solely uses its trademark to protect the uniqueness of its blue turf. Even PLACT, on behalf of Notre Dame, cannot necessarily prevent the University of Oklahoma from retaining its “Play Like a Champion Today” sign in its stadium since OU’s usage allegedly pre-dates PLACT’s registration.

Other examples of phrases in sports that are trademarked include “Let’s Get Ready to Rumble,” which was trademarked in 1992 by Michael Buffer, who has reportedly made $400 million by licensing this famous tagline in movies, advertising, and video games. Former basketball coach Pat Riley famously trademarked “Three Peat” in 1988. Jeremy Lin trademarked “Linsanity” in 2012 following a historic NBA record-breaking series in NY. In addition, New Orleans Saints starting quarterback Jameis Winston secured a federal trademark for the phrase “Famous Jameis,” his nickname during his Heisman trophy-winning season at Florida State.

When it comes to trademarks for popular phrases in college athletics, professional sports, or any other forum, it is critical to understand that these trademarks are limited in nature to the use of the trademark in commerce. The rights holder can broaden the trademark protection by licensing the registered trademark for a variety of goods and services. PLACT, for example, uses the phrase “Play Like a Champion Today” to make more than signs for Notre Dame. They have filed for trademark protection in many different classes of goods in which they are likely licensing the phrases, including golf bags, golf towels, wine bottles, and many other types of merchandise.

Given the protections available to registered trademarks, institutions should review their intellectual property portfolio regularly. A regular review suggests that organizations consider their use of words and phrases to ascertain whether there are appropriate protections in place to secure and manage the institution’s valuable assets. By proactively initiating basic oversight to protect these valuable and important assets, an organization can avoid unanticipated consequences that stem from overlooking available protection when options to do so are available. Such reviews will help ensure institutions own valuable trademarks like “Play Like a Champion Today” and strategically utilize their rights.

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