NFL Steps Up Efforts to Block Counterfeiters

Times Staff Writer

A team of investigators has begun to assemble in San Diego to prepare for the annual contest between the National Football League and the entrepreneurs who swarm to the Super Bowl city with carloads of unofficial souvenirs.

"You can't just go into your garage and start screen-printing NFL T-shirts," said John Flood, chief counsel for NFL Properties Inc. and chief legal guardian of NFL and Super Bowl logos.

"You name it, we'll confiscate it," Flood said, adding that T-shirts are the "hottest item."

"I have a team of investigators throughout the country who work for me directly who scan the marketplace," Flood said. "At Super Bowl time I put on a whole force in the Super Bowl city."

Advance Team on Job

An advance team already has arrived, Flood said, and by the day of the game, some 250 NFL investigators and lawyers will be in town.

Anyone found to be selling unofficial "rooting paraphernalia" will be put out of business on the spot by NFL investigators, said Robert Raskopf, one of two partners in a Manhattan law firm who will be on hand in San Diego at game time to guard the NFL's interests. The New York firm is working with Flood and a Los Angeles company that also will send a representative to San Diego.

At stake is a cut of the profits from the sale of thousands of pennants, hats, ballpoint pens, sponge-rubber hands and other keepsakes. NFL officials will not say how much money the league makes from the sales. NFL Properties charges its official licensees 8.5% of their sale price plus a guaranteed minimum that must be paid in advance, Flood said.

An executive with a company that produces official Super Bowl memorabilia said the average fan at the stadium on game day spends $5.50 on souvenirs. More than 100,000 people were on hand at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena last year to see the Denver Broncos play the New York Giants, putting estimated sales at the stadium alone at over $550,000.

About 74,000 fans are expected to pack San Diego Jack Murphy stadium for this year's contest. "The Super Bowl seems to bring out the best in the counterfeiters, and they come in from all over the country," said Bill Barron, the Los Angeles-based general manager of NFL Properties, in a recent speech to the Advertising Club of San Diego. "Plus, you get the mom and pop operations," he said.

So in a measure that amounts to a preemptive strike, the lawyers from New York and Los Angeles usually arrive in the Super Bowl city ahead of the crowds and the counterfeiters. They scout out the city, including areas near the stadium, airport and hotels, searching for counterfeiters, Raskopf said.

"They come in all shapes and sizes. The most typical example is people selling bootleg merchandise at flea markets, or maybe on a street," he said.

During the last seven or eight years, NFL Properties has waged an aggressive attack on the counterfeiters, Raskopf said, and as a result, "the retail stores have become cleaner and cleaner as have the hotel and airport gift shops."

Typically, several days before the game the lawyers obtain essentially blank seizure orders from the local courts. The investigators fill in the names later, when they spot suspected bogus merchandise.

The orders usually expire shortly after the game and provide an opportunity for anyone whose merchandise is seized to have a hearing in court within a day or so, Raskopf said. To ensure against incorrect seizures, NFL Properties must post a bond of $10,000 to $30,000.

"Rarely does anyone show up to be heard about why their merchandise was seized," Raskopf said, adding, "We have never had any illegal seizures."

The investigators have the authority to seize the merchandise immediately without the assistance of local police because the judge who grants the orders usually deputizes the NFL representatives, Flood said. But NFL Properties frequently hires off-duty police officers to accompany its investigators, he said.

Protection for Consumers

Money is not the only reason for the NFL's aggressive enforcement of its trademarks, Flood said, adding that the league wants to protect consumers against shoddy merchandise.

"A knock-off artist may put out a T-shirt that's not flame-retardant," he said. "That's obviously not something we want to be associated with."

Barron added, "Some of this stuff that finds its way into the marketplace is likely to dissolve in your hands if you're not careful."

Furthermore, Barron said, NFL Properties has a legal responsibility to protect the interests of the licensees who pay for the trademarks. "The courts have ruled over the years that if you don't protect it, you lose it," he said.

And as a last line of defense, NFL Properties can count on the licensed vendors, who are only too happy to squeal on their bootlegging colleagues.

"If they spot it," Flood said, "They're on the phone to me in two minutes."

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