March is in full swing. While some may be hoping for spring and warmer weather, others will be hoping their favorite college basketball team will get to cut down the nets at the NCAA Men’s College Basketball Tournament.

The tournament is big business for the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) generating roughly $900 million in revenue annually.  With that much money at stake, it is not surprising that the NCAA would protect their investment and that includes their intellectual property. In fact, the NCAA’s website states use of their trademarks “are carefully controlled and aggressively protected.”

The NCAA currently owns the trademark for the term March Madness® but that was not always the case. The term March Madness® did not originate with the NCAA, it originated with Henry Porter, secretary for the Illinois High School Association (IHSA). In the 1939 edition of the IHSA magazine, Porter described a championship basketball game by saying “A little March madness may complement and contribute to sanity and keep society on an even keel.” By 1973 the IHSA had registered the trademark “March Madness” and “America’s Original March Madness” and began using the term on merchandise and programs.

In 1982, Brent Musburger was announcing a NCAA Tournament game and used the term March Madness to describe it. Musburger did not think anything of it, but the listening audience did and from there the term generated steam. The NCAA took notice of how popular it became and licensed it as a trademark.

Unfortunately, for the IHSA, they did not take immediate action against the NCAA and the NCAA continued to use the term and a heavy association was created between March Madness® and the NCAA basketball tournament.

In 1996, a video game developer tried to release a game that used the trademarked phrase on the case of the game, but this time the IHSA did not stand idly by. GTE Vantage, the video game developer, was met with a lawsuit. The Court ruled and found that the IHSA waited too long to take action and the term “March Madness” had been identified with both the NCAA and the IHSA. The Court further categorized the term as a dual-use term or “a name that the public has affixed to something other than, as well as, the Illinois high school basketball tournament.” In an effort to keep the trademark, the IHSA asked the NCAA to form a joint venture, the March Madness Athletic Association (MMAA).

This joint venture allowed the MMAA to actively police their intellectual property and send cease-and-desist letters to those who infringe on it. Around tournament time, those who have not paid to be an official licensee/sponsor of March Madness® should refer to it in other ways, but be careful as the NCAA also hold trademarks for the following: Selection Sunday®, the Elite Eight®, The Final Four®, The Big Dance®, and many more.

If planning a party for the college basketball tournament this year, think twice about what you call it. The NCAA will be watching and they send hundreds of cease-and-desist letters this time of year.

Suiter Swantz IP is a full-service intellectual property law firm, based in Omaha, NE, serving all of Nebraska, Iowa, and South Dakota. If you have any intellectual property questions or need assistance with any patent, trademark, or copyright matters and would like to speak with one of our patent attorneys please contact us.