The Washington Nationals: a Team, a Name, a Trademark

February 21, 2006

Coming up with good team names is a lot harder than it used to be. It used to be that teams would suit up in a certain color and leave it at that. The fans would call the team by the name of the club that they were affiliated with, or by the name of the town for which they played.

In the early part of the 20th century, fans and the media started coming up with nicknames for hometown teams so that the hapless baseball team in Brooklyn were bequeathed with a name that alluded to the many trolleys that ran up and down the city streets and the need for denizens to dodge said trolleys. It's fair to say that the team was dodging its share of beer bottles, rocks, and other projectiles that came their way.

Through most of the 20th century, team names were pretty straightforward. If a team played in Baltimore, you might call them the Orioles after the state bird. A team in Minnesota could be called the Vikings in deference to the large number of inhabitants with Scandinavian descent. Another team from Minnesota was named the Lakers, which made sense at the time, but made a bit less sense when the team relocated to Los Angeles. And speaking of basketball, when New Orleans named its team the Jazz it was the first time I remember a US team receiving such an unorthodox name (I suppose the Jazzes wouldn't have made sense). When the team relocated to Utah the name moved out of the "unorthodox" category and into "surreal."

Now the Washington Nationals are in hot water with their name. Bygone Sports, a Cincinnati-based company, applied for the Nationals trademark two years before the team relocated from Montreal. This week the US Patent and Trademark Office granted Bygone Sports a registration for the Nationals trademark, putting into peril Major League Baseball's (MLB's) use of the name. Note that MLB carefully chose the name as a throwback to a golden age of the national sport. From 1905-1954 the Washington D.C. nine were the called the Nationals (below right). Upon baseball's return to the capitol in 2004, the old name was brought back with a contemporary look (below left). While MLB claims to have come to an oral agreement with Bygone Sports, this is not likely to hold up in court. There are several lessons here:

1. Always make sure that you get things in writing.

2. Don't assume that you can run roughshod over "the little guy;" the Trademark Office is the great equalizer (remember that the tiny non-profit World Wildlife Fund body-slammed the World Wrestling Federation in 2001)

3. You might be better off coming up with an unorthodox (and unclaimed) contemporary team name than recycling traditional well-worn monikers... Didn't we learn this during the dot com boom as well?

- Barry Cowan bcowan@cisco.com

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