College Football Bowl Sponsorship Names And Trademarks: What Can You Learn?
Posted on Jan 9, 2018 by Brad McCabe

Tonight is the big night for college football. Bulldogs and Crimson Tide. Two teams in the super-heavyweight division of college football. But lots of bowls past and present have lead up to this night. Those bowls have typically had colorful names. Dozens of bowls (most not part of the championship picture) take place over the holidays, whose names were created by local civic associations: oranges in Florida, cotton in Dallas, sugar in New Orleans and rose in Pasadena.

While few startups are in the position to sponsor a bowl game, sponsorship of any event can impact your trademark rights. There are lessons in sponsorships which can be learned by startups and global brands alike.

Over time, company sponsorships were invented. Commercial bowl sponsorships have often been ridiculed by the hard-core sports fan. At least one critic at SBNation dubbed the name “Bad Boy Mowers Gasparilla Bowl” as the absolute worst name in the history of bowl names. The company, Bad Boy, was a start-up in 2002 with 20 employees, and has since grown to produce enough mowers to sponsor a bowl game. The question arises, when it comes to sponsorships: does the sponsor care what people think about whether the company name is in harmony with the bowl, or is it enough to just get your name known?

When I first heard of the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl many years ago, I felt, as a lifelong college football fan, that commercialization had gone too far. But naming is here to stay as bowls are about generating revenue for television and schools. If you are a fan of bowls, it may be hard for some to take Bad Boy Mowers Gasparilla Bowl as a serious contest. But if you are Bad Boy Mowers, what lends more of an imprimatur of “arrival” than sponsoring a bowl game? It is not as if the Bowl committee sat around and decided that the best name for their bowl would be Bad Boy Mowers. Once you get over that hurdle of often seeming conflict between the sponsoring event and its name, the rest is easy.

Sponsorships can expand trademark rights. Association with events and sponsorships gives the trademark owner the ability to say its name is used beyond its core product range, and is associated with the arts or sports, or whatever. These sponsorship arrangements go beyond just placing an ad to sponsor an event. Trademarks essentially live in “silos,” with protection awarded in an area where you use your mark, or are likely to expand. The more you broaden your uses, the more silos you fill, the more you broaden your rights.

Perhaps sports fans rarely referred to 2014’s Independence Bowl as the Duck Commander Independence Bowl -- where South Carolina squeaked by Miami (Florida) 24-21. Perhaps they didn’t refer to this same bowl as the Poulan Weed Eater Independence Bowl from 1991 to 1997; that may not be an issue. Does a sponsor expect that customers will refer to the bowl by its whole extended-advertising name, or are sponsors satisfied to be associated with a national football game?

Associating your startup with some larger organization or event, even though not a nationally televised sporting event, will raise questions. On one hand, sponsoring an event may (as discussed above) expand your rights.

But also ask: How can the organizer use your trademark, and what kind of control will you have over their use? How will the promotional materials be laid out, and how will your mark be used, in conjunction with the event name.

What about exclusivity?  Will the event guarantee that you will be the exclusive sponsor in your line of business, if you are a name sponsor for the event? Nothing may come back to weaken your trademark rights more, in the event of a conflict, than evidence that your sponsored event also featured a competitor’s name in close proximity to your name. If that time of coexisting appearance didn’t cause confusion, then how will you prove that the competitor’s use in the marketplace will harm you?

How will the event be able to use your mark in future years, historically, if you decide not to renew?  Probably any such after-the-fact promotion is a good thing. But again, if the event becomes closely associated with a competitor later on, that may not be good for your mark.

The issue with most bowl football game names is the degree of ridicule which fans have levied against these names. It’s a business decision, not a legal decision, as to whether that association will ultimately help or harm your business. Whether your customers will really make reference to the San Diego County Credit Union Poinsettia Bowl is not the issue from a trademark standpoint.  That’s for the business and marketing geniuses in your company.

But legally, if you are going to sponsor any event, like being a parade sponsor for $400 of the Lompoc Valley Festival Association Spring Fest or a $1,500 Marching Band Sponsor at the Holyoke Saint Patrick’s Day Parade, you will want to be sure that your name is featured where and how you would like. Also consider if there is any realistic way that your mark’s use by the sponsored organization would somehow weaken your trademark rights in the future.

It is one thing for people to think that the Progressive Gator Bowl of 2011 was designed to promote left-leaning reptiles; that’s a business decision (it’s now the TaxSlayer Bowl). But if you have a conflict with some other trademark owner’s use, that owner will try anything to show that its use is not damaging. Having your sponsorship running side by side with some competitor will not be good for your rights.

Article by Jess Collen as posted on

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