Giannis Antetokounmpo has the trappings that befit a basketball superstar. The “Greek Freak” is 6-foot-11 with legs so long, as Sports Illustrated put it, he can traverse “half the court with four Sasquatch steps, surveying traffic like a big rig over smart cars.”
When he’s not playing for the Milwaukee Bucks, the five-time All-Star power forward is in another court, prodigiously enforcing his trademarks.
Antetokounmpo — who in 2020 signed a five-year, $228.2 million contract extension, the largest deal in National Basketball Association history — has gone after the sellers of unauthorized shower curtains emblazoned with his name and number ($57 apiece), a themed spice blend that adds a “vibrant garlic-herb kick to any dish” ($9.99), and stickers bearing cartoon images of his likeness ($3.50).
In all, the 27-year-old has filed more than four dozen lawsuits over the past two years, accusing dozens of individuals and entities of violating his registered trademark for the phrase “Greek Freak” — a nickname that both nods to his background and is easier to pronounce than his five-syllable surname.
The lawsuits highlight that trademarks — for which filings have surged — are increasingly valuable to athletes in a social media-dominated world. They no longer need to rely on endorsements from big companies or marketing firms to promote themselves and their brands. While some of the dollar amounts may seem negligible, lawyers say letting even the most benign counterfeits slide make it more difficult to take down sophisticated — and far more lucrative — trademark violators.
Josh Gerben, a Washington-based trademark lawyer who tracks filings by athletes and others, says it’s a different era now because players are more involved in their own brands and products.
“You would get these superstars who would get these endorsement deals,” he said. “But they wouldn’t always be seeking out trademark protection because they were promoting someone else’s product or endorsing someone else’s product.”
Neither Antetokounmpo’s representatives or the lawyers who’ve filed suits on his behalf responded to requests for comments.
Some athletes seek out trademarks to keep others from profiting off their sporting fame. Such was the the case of Hall of Fame slugger Babe Ruth, who unsuccessfully tried to register a trademark for a candy bar after the “Baby Ruth” — the milk-chocolate, peanut and caramel nougat — became popular.
For others, such as NBA star LeBron James — who unsuccessfully tried to trademark “Taco Tuesday” — establishing a brand could be a way to set up a revenue stream off the court.
“A more prominent athlete may be very interested in essentially monetizing his or her fame as part and parcel of this trademark strategy,” said Darren Heitner, a lawyer who teaches sports law at the University of Florida and also specializes in intellectual property. “Maybe it’s to create a business off the field, off the court, to do something that can generate income for years after participation as a professional athlete.”
Gerben, the trademark lawyer, monitors the wide spectrum of trademarks sought by athletes. There’s requests from stars such as Baltimore Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson, who in October sought to use “LJWrites2” for a book series. Other mark requests — like Green Bay Packers lineman Rashan Gary’s application for the phrase “Put Cheese On Everything” — don’t necessarily have to do with a player’s name, image or likeness.
Social media and the digital marketplace have magnified the impact of counterfeits because “anybody can sell a product online now with a couple clicks of a button,” Gerben said. “So that lack of friction really has increased the need for protection.”
Big name brands such as Apple Inc. and adidas AG are protected by online platforms like Amazon.com Inc. from counterfeit, thanks to rules that prevent unauthorized sellers from listing certain products for sale. Many lesser-known brands have no such shield.
Gerben said his practice has seen the need to address knockoff goods for his clients explode in the last decade.
The online distribution of counterfeits also has become easier to track, though, “and that’s why the lawsuits are proliferating,” he said.
Even college athletes who can’t afford litigation are filing trademark applications, he said, “because that’s a low-hanging fruit, relatively low-cost event.” If their careers take off, “then the enforcement will likely come a little later on.”
Protect the brand
Antetokounmpo — whose “Greek Freak” trademark was granted in February 2018 for apparel, sports drinks and nutritional supplements — claims to have sold tens of thousands of dollars worth of merchandise using his likeness. He has also sought trademarks on other variations of the phrase and is attempting to expand the mark to online virtual-reality and video games.
The judge presiding over Antetokounmpo’s spice-related case last month awarded him enough to cover legal fees and blocked the defendants from further use of “Greek Freak.” But U.S. District Judge John Koeltl denied the player’s request for damages, citing the fact that Antetokounmpo hasn’t licensed his mark for such use.
Nonetheless, Gerben said, a failure to at least try to protect one’s brand against even the least obvious of alleged violations could make it much harder to win a more important case down the road. Establishing a paper trail is key.
Late last year, NBA star Kawhi Leonard and Nike Inc. settled a dispute over the ownership of a “Claw” logo associated with the Los Angeles Clippers player. The two sides ended the battle after a federal judge in Oregon had ruled that Nike owned the logo under an endorsement deal, rejecting Leonard’s argument that he had the rights because he created it before he signed with the shoe company.
These courtroom clashes, in other words, are less about recovering lost profits or collecting damages than they are about maintaining control of one’s personal brand — an immeasurably valuable asset for pro athletes, whose performance-driven fame and fortunes typically are limited to careers that begin and end in a youthful flash.
From merchandise to NFTs
The market for athlete-related trademarks is likely just starting to expand, especially as players tap into the growing market for non-fungible tokens, or NFTs, said Anthony J. Dreyer, a partner with Skadden Arps Slate Meagher & Flom LLP whose focus includes intellectual property and sports disputes.
“Athletes, their agents and their representatives are becoming more sophisticated and more zealous in finding ways to capitalize on athletes’ name, image and likeness,” he said.
Antetokounmpo and his three brothers last month signed an exclusive license agreement with The9 Ltd.’s NFTSTAR unit to develop, sell and trade authorized NFT collections.
As for trademarks, the successful registration of a phrase doesn’t guarantee victory in any potential lawsuit. There are 45 classes of commerce that trademarks can be filed under — like “clothing” or “medical apparatus” — limiting legal protection to those areas.
The judge in the spice-related case wrote in his ruling that Antetokounmpo’s “Greek Freak” mark is not registered in “any class relating to food or food flavoring,” so the defendants’ use of the mark didn’t qualify as counterfeiting.
“A reasonable consumer would not be tricked into thinking he or she is buying a genuine Greek Freak spice blend,” Koeltl wrote, “because there is no such thing.”
And now, thanks to Antetokounmpo, there’s no such thing as an unauthorized, $9.99 Greek Freak spice blend, either.
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