As the Final Four rolls into town next week, local businesses will need to be careful about using many familiar terms, as well as some less common sayings associated with a certain college basketball tournament.

The NCAA has a tight lock on March Madness terminology, with more than two dozen trademarks that cover a wide range of slogans, expressions and catchphrases related to the tournament.

The protections include the “Final Four,” “Elite Eight” and other well-known lingo. But they also extend to longer catchlines — like “68 TEAMS, ONE DREAM” and “And Then There Were Four” — as well as generic sports jargon, such as “The Big Dance.”

The NCAA goes so far as to trademark “Dribble,” though it appears to safeguard a free parade for kids hosted during the Final Four weekend, rather than all references to bouncing basketballs.

The NCAA said its trademarks are “carefully controlled” and “aggressively protected” — similar to the NFL’s notorious oversight of the Super Bowl and other trademarks.

Organizations like the NCAA use trademarks to shield their brand against imitators and unauthorized collaborators.

For the NCAA, it comes down to guarding its brand and ensuring the organization gets its share of licensing revenue from ticketing sales, merchandise and advertising, said Christopher Schulte, a Minneapolis trademark lawyer with intellectual property law firm Merchant and Gould.

That can lead some companies to go after an expansive list of slogans. In total, the NCAA retains about 70 trademarks, most for the organization’s tournaments and events, such as the Frozen Four and the College World Series.

“The general approach is if the marketing folks come up with a phrase that’s sort of suggestive of the tournament, or they get wind of something, they sometimes try to get their arms around it,” Schulte said. “The goal for the organization is to see if they can lock down trademark protection before it becomes so common that no one can claim trademark rights to it.”

Though the Final Four ushers in a big-time marketing opportunity for local businesses, trademark restrictions can bring some challenges for those looking to cash in.

A bar hosting a viewing party, for example, can’t put up signs advertising, “The Road to Minneapolis,” or use other protected slogans without approval. In doing so, they risk receiving a cease-and-desist letter from the NCAA.

Schulte’s advice to business owners: play it safe.

“If you’re going to sell something like chicken wings and a beer to watch the game, you should probably call it ‘the Big Game,’ ” he said. “That’s the work around. It keeps you safe.”


Austen Macalus is a University of Minnesota student on assignment for the Star Tribune.