Mascot Wars: Big Red Loses To Gabibbo


Round One of what I consider to be one of the greatest stories in sports business history is over: Gabibbo has beaten Big Red.

But if the legal system one day does what it's supposed to do, Western Kentucky University will be flush with cash. Unfortunately, I'm not sure that's ever going to happen.

It was almost four years ago when I fell in love with the story of Gabibbo. He's basically this big red blob that has become the Barney of Italy. Mediaset, the creator of Gabibbo, was being sued by a company called ADFRA, Western Kentucky and Crossland Enterprises for $250 million.

ADFRA had licensed Big Red, the mascot of Western Kentucky, from Crossland Enterprises, which sells the rights on behalf of the university. When ADFRA figured out that Gabibbo was essentially Big Red, they realized what they had just bought was useless.

Although Big Red wasn't trademarked in Italy -- neither was Gabibbo, for that matter -- Western Kentucky University officials believed they had a pretty good case of infringement on their hands.

Besides the fact that they look exactly alike, there was a potentially damaging quote made by Antonio Ricci, who "created" Gabibbo in 1990.

Ricci said this to a publication called Novella 2000, in 1991: "It all began with a photo, just as happens with real adoptions. There was this mascot, his name was Big Red, who was the mascot of a basketball team in America. The team is Western Kentucky University."

Ricci later said he was joking.

As many of you know, the legal standards vary depending on where you are, but in Italy -- at least according to a Italian judge's ruling earlier this month -- Gabibbo is similar to Big Red, but he is not Big Red. That means that Mediaset owes nothing to the Western Kentucky, ADFRA or Crossland.

I haven't had the 90-plus page ruling translated yet, but the summary I got from the plaintiffs was that the main difference is that Gabibbo talks and Big Red doesn't.

I can't let this go without saying that there's politics behind every story. Mediaset is owned by Silvio Berlusconi, Italy's richest man, former prime minister and, as sports fans have come to know him, president of A.C. Milan. Despite what they are up against, sources tell CNBC that WKU, ADFRA and Crossland Enterprises will file an appeal by Jan. 20.

Questions? Comments?