The professional football team representing Washington, D.C., has certainly had a difficult time establishing a brand.
The Washington Football Team officially became the Washington Commanders in February 2022, about 18 months after the franchise caved to corporate and public pressure and permanently retired the Redskins nickname and logo, designed by a proud member of the Blackfeet Tribe, because of supposed racism. Now, a little more than a year after they adopted a new name and a new identity, they find themselves having to reconsider that name and identity now that their trademark application has been denied.
On Wednesday, Washington, D.C., trademark attorney Josh Gerber reported that the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office rejected the Commanders' application for two reasons. First, the name "Commanders’ Classic" has already been trademarked for the annual college football game between Army and Air Force, and the USPTO expressed concern that consumers might be confused by the similarity. "It's meant to protect consumers from being confused as to who's offering them a particular product or service," Gerber explained.
The second reason for the rejection involved Martin McCaulay, a D.C.-area resident who had already filed trademarks for "Washington Wolf Commanders" and "Washington Space Commanders" long before the Washington Commanders name was officially announced. However, McCaulay's attorney, Darren Heitner, claimed in July 2020 that McCaulay "has no intention to stand in the way of the Washington NFL team" and "will gladly do whatever is in his power to clear a path for the Washington NFL team to rebrand itself without the need to incur substantial legal fees."
In other words, should the suits in the Commanders' front office opt to appeal the rejection, they might have a reasonable chance of succeeding. It is unlikely that anyone of good faith would mistake an NFL team for a college game or "think that these two are somehow related," Gerben suggested. And while McCaulay has filed for trademarks, they have not been registered. So as long as McCaulay "keeps his word" about a possible deal, the Commanders could likely buy out the rights to his current trademark filings.
Of course, the Commanders could always forego a trademark, but doing so would likely mean a substantial loss of future revenue due to unlicensed merchandise. Though the team would still have some rights, "the registration certainly provides a supercharge of any rights that you might have," Gerben said.
Still, if the Washington team decides to move on from yet another nickname, now would be the time to do so. Beleaguered owner Dan Snyder is reportedly working out a deal to sell the franchise to Philadelphia 76ers owner Josh Harris, as well as billionaire Mitchell Rales and NBA and Michigan State University legend Magic Johnson, for a record $6.05 billion. The deal must also be approved by three-fourths of the 32 NFL franchise owners.
Snyder has been accused of attempting to derail a sexual harassment investigation and of using racial slurs. In 2021, the team was fined $10 million for the franchise's supposedly toxic work environment.
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