Viewpoint: US sports’ popularity in UK ‘poses brand protection challenges’

Football and the Premier League will always hold top spot in the sporting hearts of those in Britain, however in recent years some major sports from across the Atlantic have grown in popularity.

The NFL (National Football League), MLB (Major League Baseball) and NBA (National Basketball Association) are the three major sporting leagues in North America, all of which have started to make an impact in Europe, both on and off the field. These leagues bring big money in advertising, sponsorship and merchandise. But from an intellectual property (IP) perspective there are also major challenges.

Making waves across the pond

One of the first efforts to popularise American basketball in the UK can be traced back to a few NBA pre-season games played in 1993. Their success abroad has rocketed since then and they are now selling out the 02 Arena in London.

The NFL has had similar, if not greater, success in London. What started as a one-off game in 2007 has since grown to four regular season games being played at Wembley Stadium every year.

Both the NBA and NFL have also entertained the idea of having franchises based permanently in London. If achieved, this would be revolutionary for the US sporting industry, as no major sports club in America has ever permanently moved their base abroad.

Baseball has also followed this trend, with the MLB recently opening its first European pop-up store stocking official merchandise in Covent Garden. Moreover, a large 4th of July event last year saw major league baseball players participating in a hitting contest for fans in London’s Hyde Park.

Brand loyalty and revenue opportunities

In European football, clubs must adhere to UEFA financial fair play regulations, which ensures that clubs have sufficient funds to support their longevity rather than spending beyond their means in a bid for short-term success. A common way of achieving this goal is having a strong global brand and there is empirical evidence showing a direct link between financial success and positive sporting results.

Sports club have three main sources of revenue – match day activities, broadcasting and commercial interests. An integral part of the commercial branch of revenue is the sale of merchandise to their supporters. The expansion of US sports internationally, and the inevitable interest they generate, naturally leads to an increase in demand for official apparel from fans abroad, particularly in the UK.

Sports team supporters are eager to spend money to show their affiliation, but the apparel can easily be counterfeited, leading to direct financial harm on the clubs themselves, as well as corporate sponsors. Due to the threat of counterfeits flooding the market, sports franchises need to have proper brand protection mechanisms in place. Without this protection, not only do merchandise sales suffer but significant sponsorship opportunities could be missed or lost.

How to protect your sports brand

There are three essential proactive measures that should be taken by sports brands expanding into the global market:

1. Secure your IP rights

Brand protection would be impossible without securing a strong portfolio of relevant IP rights, in the relevant jurisdictions. Therefore, the most valuable preventive measure is to legally protect a brand’s intellectual property rights, especially in territories where expansion of sporting events and new fan bases are expected.

2. Educate the consumer

Sports franchises must do their best to help consumers purchase genuine goods via officially authorised channels. It is important that brands continue to educate fans about how to spot counterfeit items and help them to identify products using signs such as, holographic marks of authenticity. A great example that might be followed is the Premier League’s anti-counterfeiting programme, which educates consumers about the dangers of buying fake goods.

3. Proactive enforcement

The best proactive solution would be a wide-ranging brand protection service, which combines innovative technology, smart analysis and intelligence, together with expert advice and extensive enforcement on all possible fronts of infringements occurring online and offline. Businesses should be especially careful and act against the influx of unauthorised activities to protect their brand and longevity.

For the fans

Maintaining a strong sports brand is not just about success on the field, it is also about protecting the health and safety of fans when they are seeking to buy merchandise to show their support for the sport and their teams.

For successful franchise expansion globally, it is important to adopt a proactive approach to brand protection and implement preventive measures against illegal activity that may damage the sports brand and its fans.

Fans deserve to purchase genuine goods for the time and money they invest in their team every year.

Simon Baggs is CEO & Co-Founder at Incopro and Partner at Wiggin LLP. Simon specialises in using technology to enforce rights online. He has led litigation teams to secure legal precedent requiring online intermediaries to use their technology infrastructure to protect IP. He co-founded Incopro to offer companies the technology and intelligence necessary to secure scalable and global protection from online rights infringement.

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