The reason advertisers can’t say ‘March Madness’ goes back 75 years

WASHINGTON — The NCAA basketball national championship wasn’t called “March Madness” until the 1980s, but the reason the name is trademarked dates back to more than 75 years ago.

And it was sportscaster Brent Musburger who ultimately prompted the trademark.

“It was used by a high school tournament in Illinois starting in 1939. They called their high school basketball tournament in Illinois March Madness,” said patent and trademark attorney Dave Radack at law firm Eckert Seamans Cherin & Mellott, with a practice in D.C.

“When it really became popular was in 1982, when Brent Musburger, who was from Illinois and was familiar with the March Madness high school tournament, started calling the NCAA tournament March Madness, and it kind of took off from there.”

That led to a lawsuit between the Illinois High School Association and the NCAA over rights to the name. Ultimately, both sides agreed to equal rights to the name, and formed a company called March Madness LLC, giving both sides rights to the trademark and rights to license it.

Also off limits as NCAA trademarked names are “Elite Eight” and “Final Four.”

“Sweet Sixteen” is another phrase that’s off limits for commercial use, but that’s complicated too.

“Another high school basketball tournament in Kentucky has rights to that, and the NCAA has a license to use that from the Kentucky State High School Tournament,” Radack said.

The NCAA has an enforcement team and goes after advertisers hundreds of times a year for violating its trademarks, although generally it is in the form of a cease and desist letter and rarely leads to litigation.

It is perfectly fine for news organizations to use the names, as is use for any other noncommercial purpose.

Jeff Clabaugh

Jeff Clabaugh has spent 20 years covering the Washington region's economy and financial markets for WTOP as part of a partnership with the Washington Business Journal, and officially joined the WTOP newsroom staff in January 2016.

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