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High school sports logos run afoul of 'owners'

| Sunday, Oct. 10, 2010

His first clue came when he tried to order a necktie featuring a panther's head.

As the superintendent of a football-hungry northwestern Ohio school district, Patrick Hickey wanted to show off the emblem of Whitmer High School athletics, a logo splashed on the team uniforms, the basketball court and across 20 yards of the football field.

But the tie maker said the image of the snarling panther -- with yellow as the dominant color instead of navy blue -- belonged to the University of Pittsburgh.

By April, Pitt officials insisted the Toledo school cease using the logo. That led to a compromise permitting Whitmer to phase out its use as new jerseys are ordered and the district replaces the field and its basketball court.

"Being an educator, my point was it didn't belong to us and we would stop using it," said Hickey, who inherited the Pitt-style logo when he became Washington Local Schools' superintendent in 2007.

Whitmer isn't alone in feeling the bite of universities acting to preserve their trademarks -- even from high school programs.

The Atlanta-based Collegiate Licensing Co., which counts Pitt among its 160 college clients, has been contacting high schools across the nation through cease-and-desist letters.

In particular, the trademark licensing and marketing company has been targeting schools that use logos associated with the Florida State Seminoles and Florida Gators -- even those outside the Sunshine State.

So far, local programs say they haven't been on the company's radar.

Officials for the Penn Hills School District, where Florida State Associate Athletic Director Andy Urbanic once coached the football team, said the Indians haven't heard anything from anyone in Tallahassee regarding use of a Seminole-like spear on their helmets.

At Gateway School District, the "Gators" script on the football helmets resembles the lettering on Florida's. The school orders its helmet decals from a catalog supplied by Neff Co., an Ohio supplier of varsity jackets, banners and chairs with school logos.

"All but maybe a handful of seasons, Gateway has worn that script lettering," football coach and Athletic Director Terry Smith said of the district formed in the late 1950s, which enrolls students from Monroeville and Pitcairn.

The issue has been around for years, but might be gaining more attention because of the increased exposure of high school athletics, which are receiving more TV coverage, according to Jim Aronowitz, Collegiate Licensing's associate general counsel.

He said the institutions are trying to guard against the potential risk of their marks being "weakened" by unauthorized third parties.

The organization's goal is for high schools to agree to a gradual shift away from the disputed logo to lessen the financial blow.

"The vast majority of these (cases) are resolved amicably with a phase-out plan being implemented," Aronowitz said.

Roy Yarbrough, an expert on college and high school mascots and logos, said there's usually not a problem unless the high school assumes a high profile or begins making a lot of money off the logo.

"The local people will get away with it down the road until somebody makes money off it or something goes wrong," said Yarbrough, director of the sports management studies program at California University of Pennsylvania. "It depends how much money (universities) want to spend going after them."

Hickey said Whitmer might have been a victim of its marketing success because the school "believed very hard in selling our mark."

"We certainly don't like using anyone else's mark, but it appeared to be commonplace," he said.

After Pitt's request, a student designed a new panther head logo. The old one was removed from the school website and letterhead. The public school district was spared from immediately having to replace the 4-year-old stadium turf that officials hope will last another six to eight years, Hickey said.

New artificial turf could have cost $500,000 to $1.5 million, he said.

As of late September, 340 companies and organizations had a license to produce materials with Pitt's logos at base fees ranging from $125 to $500 and a 10 percent royalty rate, according to websites for Pitt and Collegiate Licensing.

Pitt officials declined to comment about the Toledo school's use of the panther head, other than to say the matter has been amicably resolved.

"The university appreciates Whitmer's cooperation and prompt action to transition to a new panther head logo for its school," Pitt spokesman John Fedele said.

One safe logo is the Jeannette Jayhawk.

It's similar to the University of Kansas icon, but local lore credits Mike Getto, a Pitt All-American player and Kansas assistant football coach, for bringing it back to Jeannette during the 1930s.

The university charges just a $1 annual licensing fee to Jeannette and a handful of other high schools, said Jim Marchiony, associate athletic director at Kansas.

"We realize that some schools may want to use it," he said.

Additional Information:

NFL doesn't care

While this is Steelers Country, Vikings roam the high school fields on Friday nights.

The Vikings are the nickname of choice for the Mt. Pleasant Area, Pittsburgh Central Catholic, Sto-Rox and Hopewell athletic programs • and all of them use logos similar to that of the Minnesota Vikings.

Despite some strikingly familiar logos, professional sports organizations have very little interest in pursuing trademark claims against high schools.

'It's something that's not a concern,' NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy said. 'We support football at all levels.'

Before a renovation of the Mt. Pleasant Area fieldhouse several years ago, district officials double-checked to make sure the pro team didn't have a problem with the logo, said Ron Firment, who served as the athletic director for 16 years.

A Viking head is atop a 'V' on Mt. Pleasant's helmets.

'Their message pretty much was, 'We're more concerned about trying to win a Super Bowl than who's using our logo,'' he said.

Boosters for the Plum Mustangs football team decided this fall to use the district's older, full-body mustang logo on its apparel instead of using the newer one that is similar to the Denver Broncos' mark.

The parents group was mindful of possible trademark concerns and didn't want to be sued, said booster president Bev Lutz, a 1980 Plum graduate.

Jim Saccomano, Denver's vice president of public relations, said the organization protects its logo, but said Plum's use sounded like a 'no-harm, no-foul thing.'

In Fayette County, the Albert Gallatin Colonials' logo is nearly identical to the one the New England Patriots introduced in 1993.

The district's symbol features an 'AG' in place of the white star on the Revolutionary-era hat of the patriot. A 'swoosh' in the shape of the letter 'C' curves around the head of the figure.

Duane Dupont, Albert Gallatin athletic director, said he has never heard anything negative from the Patriots.

'You're looking at high school athletics,' Dupont said. 'More so than anything, that's getting their product out there more.'

? by Chris Foreman

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