Over the last few days, area football fans have been bombarded with pop-up ads, digital billboards, TV and radio commercials, and other advertisements all referencing “The Big Game.”
The reference, of course, is in place of any mention of the National Football League’s Super Bowl, a registered trademark through the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office for TV broadcasting and many other means of transmission of any and all NFL content.
Companies hoping not to run afoul of the law are getting creative with advertising, and also with social media.
Bethlehem’s SteelStacks campus announced Thursday it’s hosting a “watch party” for the Big Game, and used clip art in place of NFL logos. One ArtsQuest staff member also tweeted a tongue-in-cheek “FLY [REDACTED] FLY!” with a graphic advertising the event, which references Birds (but not Philadelphia Eagles) and includes a small gold cup instead of the Lombardi Trophy.
SteelStacks says doors to the Musikfest Cafe will open at 5 p.m. on Super Bowl Sunday. There will be a menu crafted for hungry football fans, and bartenders will also be slinging green beer. You can register for the event on Facebook: facebook.com/events/1991107907836334/
Curt Mosel, chief operating officer of ArtsQuest, the organization that operates SteelStacks, said officials at the south Bethlehem venue did not check with the NFL on the promotional wording.
“But that’s why we’re cautious with the language we are using,” Mosel said.
SteelStacks has become a top destination for soccer-viewing events, such as the World Cup. It’s also added select Penn State football games, Mosel said. Each time such events were planned, Mosel said, “We went through all the proper channels and received the rights for those events.”
The Super Bowl is a $13 billion-per-year industry, and the league trademarked the phrase in 1969, according to SB Nation. The NFL stands to lose a lot of cash if it doesn’t control the trademark.
Budweiser, owned by brewing giant Anheuser-Busch InBev, gets to use the Super Bowl name with its sponsorship deal, while other beer companies or distributors can’t — even if those businesses reside close to Philadelphia or Boston.
Miller Brewing Co., which makes Miller beer, is running ads featuring the Eagles logo and even the Underdog mask, according to Tony Barzynski, marketing manager with Banko Beverage Co. in South Whitehall Township, the area Miller distributor.
But the distributor’s other ads can’t reference the Super Bowl, said Barzynski, who’s been with Banko for 23 years.
“Even 20 years ago, if we put out a banner and we wrote Super Bowl on it, Budweiser or whoever it was would be out there saying, ‘You can’t use it; you have to take it down,’ ” he said.
If you’re throwing your own party at home next weekend, you’re probably unaware the NFL also has trademarks for a plethora of other items you may want to get your hands on by Feb. 4, including paper napkins, tablecloths, gift bags, decorations, party invitations and hundreds of other accessories.
If you’re even thinking about using the Super Bowl trademark for commercial purposes, or perhaps to advertise your own party, know this:
The league also owns the rights to “Superbowl,” “Super Sunday,” and several other “Super” terms.
Anyone wanting to use any logo or trademark of the league, including those specifically designed for the Super Bowl, must apply to NFL Properties LLC for a license. All it takes is submitting a 36-page application, along with an agreement to pay guaranteed royalties that start in the six figures per year and only go up from there.
Area restaurants and bars planning to broadcast the game are not exempt from trademark and copyright laws. You could risk a lawsuit advertising any type of viewing party in a bar or restaurant where patrons are required to pay an entrance fee (there is no cover at SteelStacks) and a television showing the game is larger than 55 inches (yes, there really is a 55-inch screen size limitation written into the US copyright law).
The league owns the broadcast rights to all NFL games and has an oft-written-about policy of forbidding “the mass, out-of-home viewing” of such events. The Philadelphia Inquirer’s Ronnie Polaneczky has spent untold column inches asking for the league to change its rules so Lincoln Financial Field can hold a viewing party for the Super Bowl. Her arguments, thus far, have landed on deaf ears.
Some companies and individuals have gotten very creative at finding ways to reference the Super Bowl and skirt trademark and copyright laws. Comedian and TV personality Stephen Colbert is infamous for calling the game “The Superb Owl” (and getting it to trend on Twitter). It’s one of many tongue-in-cheek references having fun with the tightly restricted trademark, and one of the most memorable.
If you’re wondering why the NFL’s Super Bowl trademark is its most protected, you should also know this: According to industry magazine Ad Age, $4.9 billion was spent on ads for the first 51 years of the Super Bowl. For the game played last year in Houston, a 30-second ad spot cost a record $5 million. Super Bowl LI also had more than 111 million viewers, and the blitz surrounding the most popular sporting event of the year will be even more magnified this time. (Philly and Boston are both in the Top 10 media markets in the country.)
Failure to adhere to the NFL’s rules as we get closer to the game will draw more than a penalty flag. It could mean a corrective letter from the league in your mailbox, or a lawsuit.