Creating Champions: Celebrating Sports this World IP Day

Athletes make sport great. IP makes it epic.

A kick of a ball, a swing of a bat, a stroke of a club, a flip through the air. These motions might seem simple to some; however, they are the foundations of sport. But in the hands and feet of elite athletes — think Brandi Chastain’s leftie “redemption goal” that made the 1999 U.S. Women’s team World Cup Champions; the final swing of Chicago Cubs’ Addison Russell’s bat in game 7 of the 2016 World Series; the winning stroke signifying Tiger Woods’ return to the top in the 2019 Masters Tournament; or the flips in her floor routine that made Simone Biles the most decorated U.S. Women’s gymnast ever with 25 medals — these simple motions become athletic artistry. The glory and greatness attached to these physical feats make for some of our most significant cultural milestones.

But what if nobody saw Brandi in those iconic Nike cleats – would the impact of her penalty kick have been the same? Or you couldn’t witness Tiger’s Cinderella story until after it happened because you didn’t have access to the broadcast? And what if Spike Lee had never made those Air Jordan commercials!?

That’s where IP comes in, enabling the investments that turn on the lights on game night, build the massive arenas, enhance the safety of the athletes, and broadcast their greatest moments to the world. This World IP Day, we’re celebrating IP for its many contributions to sports and exploring how it has transformed games for good. Whether through gear, merchandise, video games, events, broadcasts, or streaming, IP provides a revenue model that enables us to invest in sport.

In March, we sat down with Dolores DiBella, VP of Legal Affairs from the NFL, and Deyna Frenkel, Senior Manager and Associate Counsel of Under Armour, who spoke of their personal experience with IP in sports during a joint panel event. During the panel, they alluded to some of the larger issues facing IP in the global sports arena.

When questioned about brand owners’ current concerns, Dolores DiBella of the NFL cited the rise of counterfeit merchandise which has increased with the rise of e-commerce:

“…you’re seeing commerce become increasingly e-commerce dependent and global. From an anti-counterfeiting perspective, how [does a brand effectively] enforce its [rights]? Whether for consumer protection or brand value goodwill, when you’re operating in so many different markets that have very disparate IP protection frameworks [you’re facing evolving challenges].”

These concerns are shared by brand owners in the sports industry across the globe– in 2017, the GIPC found that counterfeit sporting goods and sportswear have a substantial direct impact on economies, and deprive leagues, companies, and athletes of income, damage brand integrity, deplete consumer confidence, and reduce job growth. Annually, the rates of e-commerce are increasing by double digits – our study estimates that the direct impact of counterfeiting on the global sporting goods and sportswear markets was almost $50 billion a year.

While the global sports economy faces outstanding threats like the sale of counterfeits via e-commerce, inside the sports industry, companies must also work to hold themselves accountable to avoid infringement and amplify the others’ work and accomplishments. For instance, Deyna Frenkel from the legal team at Under Armour reflected on her efforts to protect broadcasting rights during this year’s March Madness tournament:

“I think what’s keeping me up all night is that part of my job is not only doing… trademarks, but also IP for our sports marketing division… our social media teams and our content development teams want to immediately put out social media posts for example… we can’t just take a snapshot that they took from CBS and post it on our Instagram channel.”

Most countries have established that broadcasting is copyrightable, and its revenues are often the main funding source for sports organizations to build stadiums and facilitate community outreach. For instance, Rio’s broadcasting on the 2016 Olympic games put $3 Billion USD back into their economy. Clearly, broadcasting is a significant revenue stream for the sports industry, as well as economies around the globe. However, paralleling the rise of e-commerce is the increasing prevalence of illegal streaming – in fact, 6.5 percent of North American households subscribed to pirated TV services in 2017, resulting in a $4.2B annual loss in subscription revenues.

Although the stats surrounding piracy and counterfeiting in the sports industry may seem bleak, when IP is respected, invested in, and amplified, athletes, economies, and communities around the world can achieve greatness. In its simplest, IP-protected broadcasting leads to increased viewership and visibility of sports events and athletes. For instance, with the recent CBS/WNBA partnership, women’s basketball and female athletes will receive the consistent and well-earned attention they deserve. IP-related revenues make this possible.

On a greater level, broadcast exposure becomes profit for the league, teams, and athletes via increased sponsorships, partnerships, merchandise, and ticket sales. In turn, these profits are transformative for international economies and consumers; they benefit economies by way of job creation and increased GDP, and consumers get better and more access to their favorite sports and teams through increased broadcasts, streaming, stadiums, and events.

“Intellectual Property rights incentivize American innovators and creators to continue investing in their work,” said Ray Kerins, GIPC’s Board Chairman. “It provides the sports industry the opportunity to invest for the long-term to help grow our economy and create more jobs.” 

Additionally, IP enhances performance by way of patents, designs, trademarks, and copyrights. Earlier this week, GIPC heard from former NFL player Shawn Springs, who spoke about his patented Crash Cloud technology. Springs worked to develop the product after noticing the stark similarities between his protective gear and his father’s, indicating athlete protections had advanced little in 30 years. Through further development, this same technology has been applied to gear for a variety of sports as well as combat equipment and automobiles.

IP is crucial to ensuring sports are at their best; all facets of IP underpin sports in some fashion. This World IP Day, let’s celebrate our innovators, creators, athletes, and each other for making sports exactly what they are – in the words of the great Billie Jean King, “Champions keep playing until they get it right.” Let’s get it right, and keep playing to ensure that innovators and creators around the world are champions this World IP Day.

Sophia Robichaux wasthe Associate Communications Manager of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Global Innovation Policy Center. 

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