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Sports Stars Seek Profit in Catchphrases

Jets cornerback Darrelle Revis shut down so many receivers last season that teammates started calling his turf Revis Island, where opposing players were inevitably marooned.

Revis Island T-shirt
Photo credit: Jetsshop.com
Revis Island T-shirt

By last December, Cincinnati Bengals receiver Chad Ochocinco was boasting on Twitter that he would be an “escape inmate gone wild on Revis Island.” (He was not, and left the game with a knee injury.)

Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg jokingly renamed Manhattan Revis Island in January when the Jets reached the American Football Conference championship game.

But even as the term became a part of Jets lexicon—spawning T-shirts, a fan blog and a commercial for Dick’s Sporting Goods—Revis was quietly laying claim to it. In January, he applied to the United States Patent and Trademark Office to register the term for use on “T-shirts, sweatshirts, sweat pants, hats, footwear, sleepwear, swimwear.”

Revis is among a number of athletes who are seeking federal trademark protection for their names, nicknames and even their catchphrases. The slogans come in all varieties: trash-talking (“Stomp You Out,” claimed by the former Giants defensive end Michael Strahan); self-aggrandizing (“I Love Me Some Me,” registered by Bengals wide receiver Terrell Owens); self-deprecating (“Manny Being Manny,” claimed, and later abandoned, by the baseball slugger Manny Ramirez); and just plain weird (“Got Strange?” registered by Vikings defensive end Jared Allen).

Trademarking nicknames and phrases is not new. Pat Riley obtained a trademark for the term “three-peat” in 1989, when he coached the Los Angeles Lakers. But lawyers who handle intellectual property rights say the practice has accelerated in recent years as athletes and sports figures seek to extend their brands into the entertainment world. The federal trademark office does not keep statistics on the professional athletes who file for protection, nor does the International Trademark Association, which represents owners.

Darrelle Revis
Getty Images
Darrelle Revis

Several lawyers for athletes said their clients were following in the footsteps of pioneers like Michael Jordan, who beyond endorsing products built a personal brand empire. For a certain class of larger-than-life athlete, it has become almost de rigueur to own a clothing or fragrance line, to maintain a vigorous Twitter following, and even to star in a reality show.

“I think that what you’re seeing in the sports arena is the same thing that other celebrities and entertainers have been doing for years,” said Daniel Glazer, senior editor of the legal journal Trademark Reporter. “Most of these athletes have a very limited period of time where they have their primary earning years, and this is a way to capitalize on their fame and maximize their earnings during their playing career.”

Revis said he filed to protect Revis Island after discussing it with his agents and family, in part out of concern that others were profiting from it.

“You’ve got to catch on to it, if you’re that high-profile type of player,” Revis said. “Basically, anybody can market themselves. It don’t matter if you’re a high-profile player or not. You can find a way to market yourself and get yourself out there.”

He cited Owens and Ochocinco as players who have successfully marketed themselves, even if, in the case of Ochocinco, Revis said, “I wouldn’t do some of the things he does.”

Owens wrote a children’s book, had a breakfast cereal named for him, made guest appearances on several television shows and commercials, and in 2009 starred in a VH1 reality show, “The T. O. Show.” In addition to registering “I Love Me Some Me,” he has also sought protection for “Getcha Popcorn Ready” and a logo featuring his initials, T. O.

Chad Ochocinco
Getty Images
Chad Ochocinco

His teammate Ochocinco, who legally changed his surname from Johnson in 2008 to reflect the number on his jersey, 85, and to raise his profile, is equally enterprising. His online store, childpleeez.com, sells T-shirts and women’s underwear featuring some of his best-known sayings, including “Catch Me if You Can,” “Kiss da Baby” and, naturally, “Child Pleeez.”

But Ochocinco has not applied for trademarks other than a logo featuring his initials, perhaps because the phrases are not creative enough.

“There obviously has to be some degree of uniqueness to it,” said Allan M. Lerner, a lawyer who filed a trademark application for Ochocinco’s logo, which, the Chicago Cubs argue, is too similar to their design.

Trademark applications, which cost $275 to $375 for each business category, are reviewed by federal trademark lawyers to ensure they comply with the law. The law prohibits trademarks from being deceptive, from causing confusion with another registered mark and from using the generic name for goods and services.

Athletes sometimes allow sponsors to trademark names or slogans associated with them. Nike owns the rights to the name LeBron, for example. Representatives for the N.B.A. star LeBron James, who signed with Nike when he was 18, declined to comment, as did Nike.

Jaia Thomas, an intellectual property lawyer, said: “A lot of athletes and celebrities are being a little bit more smart about it now. So as their catchphrase starts to gain traction, they’re moving forward to protect it legally.”

Vince Young learned that lesson late. On Jan. 5, 2006—a day after his winning touchdown in the national title game as a quarterback for the University of Texas—someone else filed trademark applications for his initials, VY, and his nickname, Invinceable. In 2008, Young sued for trademark infringement, and the case was recently settled. He has since filed applications with the trademark office.

“When you are at that level, I think you need to be cautious of who you are and where you are and where you’re going,” said Delphine James, Young’s lawyer. “Unfortunately, in this day and time, they need to be cautious of their names, and they need to protect themselves.”

Greg Bishop contributed reporting.

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