The National Collegiate Athletic Association has built its trademarked “March Madness” phrase into one of the most powerful brands in sports. It’s plastered on the courts, arenas and broadcasts for the lucrative NCAA men’s basketball tournament—and absent from the women’s tournament.
The reason for that absence is that the NCAA has withheld use of the “March Madness” brand from women’s college basketball. It has used the memorable phrase to turn the men’s tournament into a billion-dollar juggernaut, and at the same time declined to use it for the women’s tournament that has grown in popularity in recent years.
The result is that the NCAA has held back a valuable asset from the women’s tournament even as it now says it is committed to putting it on an equal footing with the men’s tournament. A giant “March Madness” logo is splashed across the center of men’s tournament courts in Indianapolis, while the women’s courts either have no obvious tournament logo or simply say “NCAA Women’s Basketball.”
<p>The NCAA has been under pressure in recent days after images of the sharply contrasting weight training facilities, food and other aspects of the men’s and women’s tournaments went viral on social media, <a href="https://www.wsj.com/articles/ncaa-tournament-womens-basketball-mens-basketball-11616344310?mod=article_inline" target="_blank" rel="noopener">spurring outrage</a>—and pledges from the association to do better. On Friday, NCAA senior vice president of basketball Dan Gavitt said the NCAA has “organized basketball under one umbrella with the goal of consistency and collaboration.”</p> <p>The NCAA has preserved the “March Madness” brand for the men even though its trademark registrations for the phrase allows its use for both men’s and women’s tournaments. The NCAA confirmed that its broadcast agreements for the men’s tournament do not prohibit it from using the branding for the women’s tournament.</p> <p>It has maintained the practice even when it had a chance to change it. The NCAA unveiled a bold new “March Madness” logo about five years ago, but didn’t extend the brand’s use to the women’s tournament. </p> <p>Over the weekend, the NCAA initially assigned responsibility for that decision to its women’s basketball leaders before reversing course to say that was inaccurate.</p> <p>In a statement to The Wall Street Journal on Saturday, the NCAA said in part, “When the current version of the March Madness logos and branding were developed five years ago, women’s basketball leadership at that time chose to pursue their own brand identity.” Veteran sports executive Anucha Browne Sanders then served as the NCAA vice president of women’s basketball championships.</p> <p>On Sunday afternoon, however, the NCAA sent a new statement omitting that sentence, which it said was inaccurate. The NCAA’s revised statement came less than an hour after the Journal contacted the former executive, who now goes by Anucha Browne, according to her LinkedIn profile.</p> <p>In a statement to the Journal, Browne said she was proud of athletes for speaking up and that she was “confident that the current NCAA leadership will assess everything and work hard to insure that they work in partnership with student athletes to provide a first class championship experience.”</p> <img src="https://images.wsj.net/im-314571?width=140&size=1.5005861664712778 140w, https://images.wsj.net/im-314571?width=540&size=1.5005861664712778 540w, https://images.wsj.net/im-314571?width=620&size=1.5005861664712778 620w, https://images.wsj.net/im-314571?width=700&size=1.5005861664712778 700w, https://images.wsj.net/im-314571?width=860&size=1.5005861664712778 860w, https://images.wsj.net/im-314571?width=1260&size=1.5005861664712778 1260w" alt="" /> <h4>A logo on the floor at the NCAA women's tournament at the Alamodome in San Antonio.</h4> Photo: Charlie Riedel/Associated Press <p>The NCAA executives overseeing women’s basketball made at least one request to use the March Madness brand in recent years, according to a person familiar with the matter. The request was rebuffed by the NCAA, this person said. </p> <p>The NCAA spokesperson acknowledged that “there likely have been staff discussions over the years regarding the use of March Madness in connection with the women’s basketball tournament.”</p> <p>In a Monday statement, the NCAA said it would work with staff, membership and media partners “to determine the best way forward for women’s basketball, including the use of March Madness logos in the future.”</p> <p>The March Madness brand has been a powerful tool for the men’s tournament. The @MarchMadness <a href="https://www.wsj.com/market-data/quotes/TWTR">Twitter</a> and Instagram accounts, which have a combined 2.5 million followers, feature only players, coaches and fans for the men’s tournament, which tipped off last Thursday. So does the NCAA’s March Madness Live app. </p> <p>The closest thing the women’s tournament—which tipped off Sunday on ESPN networks and ABC—has to a recognized brand is the social-media handle “@ncaawbb.” Those Twitter and Instagram accounts have a combined following of about 695,000. The women’s tournament’s app, “NCAA DI Women’s Basketball,” launched this year.</p> <p>“March Madness” has become such a popular brand that many people use it to refer to the men’s basketball tournament itself. In recent years, the number of internet searches for “March Madness” soared past those for “NCAA tournament,” according to Google Trends. </p> <p>Not having access to the well-known brand is costing the women’s basketball tournament, said Jeff Hunt, founding partner of Legend Labs, an Austin-based consulting firm that specializes in brand creation, projection and protection.</p> <p>“There’s no question in my mind that the value of the women’s tournament would go up pretty dramatically if they were able to have the halo of the March Madness branding as well,” Hunt said. </p> <p>The NCAA says it started using “March Madness” in 1982. After extensive wrangling, it registered the trademark in 1993, and wrote in its submission to the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office that the mark was for “entertainment in the nature of basketball tournaments between college teams.”</p> <p>Douglas Masters, the NCAA’s longtime trademark lawyer, confirmed that “March Madness” applied to the women’s tournament as well as the men’s. But he also said that registrants like the NCAA can make a business decision not to use the trademark for certain situations.</p> <img src="https://images.wsj.net/im-314568?width=140&size=1.5005861664712778 140w, https://images.wsj.net/im-314568?width=540&size=1.5005861664712778 540w, https://images.wsj.net/im-314568?width=620&size=1.5005861664712778 620w, https://images.wsj.net/im-314568?width=700&size=1.5005861664712778 700w, https://images.wsj.net/im-314568?width=860&size=1.5005861664712778 860w, https://images.wsj.net/im-314568?width=1260&size=1.5005861664712778 1260w" alt="" /> <h4>Aaliyah Edwards of the UConn Huskies takes a shot against the High Point Panthers.</h4> Photo: Carmen Mandato/Getty Images <p>The NCAA is a nonprofit organization that exists to support its membership of more than 1,000 colleges and universities. It must strike a balance between generating revenues and promoting the “inclusive culture” mentioned in the mission statement on its tax form.</p> <p>The men’s basketball tournament, which launched in 1939, has a broadcast deal with CBS and Turner that pays the NCAA nearly $1 billion a year and runs through 2032. The men’s tournament generates about 80% of the NCAA’s annual revenue.</p> <p>The NCAA sold the rights to its women’s tournament, which launched in 1982, and many of its other sports championships to ESPN for $500 million over 14 years or about <a href="https://www.wsj.com/articles/march-madness-womens-college-basketball-ncaa-tournament-11616155596?mod=article_inline" target="_blank" rel="noopener">$35 million a year</a>. ESPN has expanded its coverage of the women’s tournament in recent years. This year it’s eliminating regional broadcasts, meaning every women’s tournament game will be on national television for the first time.</p> <p>On the topic of the March Madness brand, an ESPN spokesperson referred the Journal to the NCAA. </p> <p><em>—Jim Oberman contributed to this article.</em></p> <p>Write to Rachel Bachman at <a href="mailto:Rachel.Bachman@wsj.com" target="_blank" rel="noopener">Rachel.Bachman@wsj.com</a>, Louise Radnofsky at <a href="mailto:firstname.lastname@example.org" target="_blank" rel="noopener">email@example.com</a> and Laine Higgins at <a href="mailto:firstname.lastname@example.org" target="_blank" rel="noopener">email@example.com</a></p> <p>Copyright ©2020 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All Rights Reserved. 87990cbe856818d5eddac44c7b1cdeb8</p>
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