Yesterday, I waded into the the ongoing debate about the propriety of the league’s trademark application filed to secure rights to the Cascadia Cup. Today, Footiebusiness contributor Dave Laidig offers his reply. For more of Dave’s excellent work, click the tab at the top of the page, and find some more here.
The debate surrounding MLS’s trademark application of the Cascadia Cup is intense. And each side has valid points. The Supporter Groups that creates the Cascadia Cup nearly a decade ago – when the teams where in a different league – rightly feel that they own the Cup. The Supporters have managed the ceremonial aspects of the Cup, its award and the subsequent taunting of the other teams, and have not neglected the Cup. For their part, MLS literally owns all of the teams that compete for the Cascadia Cup. And it’s a common fact of modern day sports that leagues have an obligation to aggressively protect their brands. To do otherwise may be interpreted as forfeiture of their rights, and may allow third parties to muck up the brand, confuse customers, and ultimately cost money. In this situation, it’s tough to say who is right, and who is wrong.
But Major League Soccer is wrong – I guess that wasn’t so tough. The league may not be wrong with regards to the law (and really this should not get that far). They may not be wrong with trying to protect their investment. The league is wrong because it misjudged its own customers, and pissed off a large swath of fans (and not just those in the Pacific Northwest) by roughly appropriating their creation. It’s tough to stay in business when you screw over your customers.
The Supporter Groups rightly have concerns about MLS ownership of their Cup. The award and caretaking of the Cup is between fan organizations, and represents these groups as much as the teams. By claiming ownership without notifying the groups, the league has indicated that it either (1) is not concerned with the Supporters Groups, or (2) feels it needs to hide its actions from the Supporters Groups. Regardless of the reason, MLS is foreshadowing that the league may manage the trademark in conflict with the goals of the Supporter Groups. The league may sell a sponsorship for the event that the Supporter Groups don’t want associated with their name. Or the creation of a taunting t-shirt by a fan could be shut down as producing counterfeit goods – and one of the best parts about being in a Support Group is the homemade stuff. Indeed, the league may cut out the Supporters Groups altogether if they wish. Any of these events offends justice, and the league’s attempt to assure fans rings hollow after their unannounced and unilateral claim to the Cup.
And the fact is that the league already monetizes the event. With every TV promo, crowd shot, and every ad sale, the league is making money off the creation of the fans. So far, the Supporter Groups in the spirit of partnership with the league have not filed a claim asking MLS to return their profits. Unfortunately, MLS has not extended the same courtesy to its fans.
If I could arbitrate a solution to this impasse, I would recognize that the Supporters Groups get to use their creation, and allow the league to police third parties. The league indicates that it did not wish to infringe upon its fans. Great, put it writing. Whichever party ends up with “ownership,” the other party should be granted a license to use the mark. Give the Supporter Groups some say in whether there will ever be a title sponsor, and recognize that the physical trophy and award will be controlled by supporters. The league is in a better position to police the mark, and can incorporate the Cascadia Cup into its normal intellectual property protection practices. The league can market the event and supporter atmosphere as they have. After all, it does make for great TV. Of course, all of this is just a contractual settlement of an intellectual property dispute, and does not address the underlying relationship with fans. Even in my hypothetical world, I cannot fix that.