Pat Riley has another chance at success 25 years later. In the 1988-1989 NBA season his Los Angeles Lakers sought their third-straight NBA Championship. Lakers players and fans used the motto THREE-PEAT, and it caught on.
The Lakers fell short, losing in the finals to the Pistons. But Riley came away a winner. His company, Riles & Co., filed for a trademark on the phrase “THREE-PEAT” in November, 1988.
In his 30+ years of trademark ownership, Riley has profited handsomely from owning THREE-PEAT. The term is as embedded in sports culture as the gap between Michael Strahan’s teeth.
In fact, just two years after the USPTO approved Riley’s trademark application, the Chicago Bulls won the first of three straight championships. They’d do it again from 1996 to 1998, and Riley’s own Lakers, after he left, achieved the feat from 2000 through 2002. The New York Yankees won three straight of their own, from 1998 through 2000.
In each instance, Riley profited when merchandisers inevitably used the phrase on apparel and other products.
Sports trademarks aren’t limited to rallying slogans. A phrase spoken in an interview or press conference has the potential to crossover into the entertainment world, becoming a commercialized product of pop culture.
It proves that touchdown celebrations, phrases, and interview meltdowns can all help to define athletes’ personal brands. As sports figures begin to make their marks in the entertainment world, it’s becoming more important to trademark the quotes that become so buzz-worthy online.
“You cannot be serious!” (John McEnroe)
When athletes lash out during a game or at a reporter, they suffer the consequences with penalties or suspensions. But sometimes they also profit from these infamous incidents.
“Superbrat” John McEnroe was known for his Queens, New York attitude and brought it with him to Wimbledon in 1981. When the umpire, Ted James, made a call against him, McEnroe lost his cool. He screamed, like a true New Yorker, “You cannot be serious!” repeatedly. He then cursed at the referee and called James the “pits of the world.”
McEnroe ended up winning Wimbledon and later apologized to James. That didn’t stop him from trademarking his phrase, and writing an autobiography by the same name.
Read more on the story behind the “You cannot be serious!” trademark
“They are who we thought they were.” (Dennis Green)
Former Arizona Cardinals head coach Dennis Green’s famous outburst during a press conference in 2006 is still used in sports media coverage today. His Cardinals had a 20-point lead in a game against the Chicago Bears, but lost it in under twenty minutes.
When asked about the Cardinals’ defense, the usually reserved head coach snapped, slamming the podium and cussing at the reporter: “The Bears are what we thought they were, they’re what we thought they were…we played them in the third game, everybody played three quarters, the Bears are who we thought they were!” Green then stormed out of the conference.
When a soft-spoken coach flips out and shocks everyone, it’s impossible to forget. Since then, his rant has been used in commercials and mimicked by countless actors, like Paul Rudd. Green has since abandoned the trademark.
“Ball So Hard University” (Terrell Suggs)
When introduced during nationally televised games, football players typically give their alma maters a nod. Before a 2011 game against the Pittsburgh Steelers, Baltimore Ravens linebacker Terrell Suggs credited an odd-sounding school: Ball So Hard University.
The term comes from a song by Jay Z and Kanye West, but Suggs made it his own. Before long he started printing t-shirts and other apparel featuring Ball So Hard University. Unfortunately, someone beat him to the trademark punch.
On November 9, 2011, a man named Brian Bussells filed a trademark application for the term Ball So Hard University, for use on hooded sweatshirts, jerseys, sweatpants, sweatshirts, and t-shirts. Suggs’s company, Team Sizzle Films, Inc., filed for the same mark, on similar apparel, a little more than a week later.
It might seem as though Suggs might have rights to the phrase, but the USPTO didn’t agree. In early February, 2014, they officially registered the mark to Bussells. Suggs has tried in the past to assert his rights to the mark, but Bussell’s successful registration certainly hurts his case.
“That’s a clown question, bro” (Bryce Harper)
By June, 2012, Bryce Harper was already a baseball sensation. The Washington Nationals called him up to the majors that April, even though he was just 19 years old. His first month proved productive, despite playing against players older and more experienced.
After a game in Toronto, a reporter asked Harper if he planned to celebrate that night’s win with a beer, since the drinking age in Toronto is 19. Harper, a faithful Mormon, responded bluntly. “I’m not answering that. That’s a clown question, bro.”
The phrase took off and by the next day, t-shirts were already available. Harper saw an opportunity and trademarked the phrase. He then teamed up with Under Armour to produce a line of t-shirts.
“Getcha Popcorn Ready” and “Love Me Some Me” (Terrell Owens)
“Getcha popcorn ready” originated during Dallas Cowboys wide receiver Terrell Owens’s 2006 touchdown celebration, where he took a fan’s popcorn and dumped it into his helmet.
He resurrected the popcorn episode later in his career with an unforgettable note to reporters. Owens, known for being a media ham, left a note for reporters on his locker reading: “Dear Reporters, Due to the magnitude of this week’s game and high volume of questions for the Original 81 about the other 81, I will be taking all questions immediately following Sunday’s game. Sincerely, Terrell Owens. P.S. Getcha Popcorn Ready.”
Owens has also fittingly trademarked the phrase “I Love Me Some Me.”
“Unbelievably Believable” (Robert Griffin III)
Robert Griffin III thought about his personal brand as the Washington Redskins selected him No. 2 in the 2013 NFL Draft. He created his own limited liability company (Thr3escompany) and immediately began trademarking his names. In addition to his nicknames and their variations, RGIII has trademarked 6 other phrases including “No Pressure No Diamonds,” “Dream Big Live Bigger,” “Light You Up,” and his most recent trademark “Know Your Why.”
“Unbelievably Believable” originates from his Heisman trophy speech. Since then, he has created more “original” and “inspiring” phrases, in addition to a lucrative Subway endorsement.
“Manny Being Manny” (Manny Ramirez)
Most athletes trademark nicknames and phrases based off of their athletic feats or big egos. Not Manny Ramirez. The catchphrase “Manny being Manny” originated from his quirky, often foolish, behavior on and off the baseball field.
A list of Ramirez’s antics could fill a book. He might be the only player to ever attempt stealing first base. While making a play in the outfield he high-fived a fan before throwing the ball back to the infield. He once cut off a throw from fellow outfielder Johnny Damon, despite standing perhaps 20 feet away. And that’s not to mention his frequent disappearances into the Green Monster between innings.
In 2005 Ramirez saw an opportunity to use the commonly used phrase, Manny Being Manny, for his own gain. He filed for a trademark on the term, classifying it as “general business merchandising services, namely, marketing.” About a year later, however, he abandoned the application.
“He Hate Me” (Rod Smart)
The XFL was a short-lived football league founded by WWE owner Vince McMahon. While ostensibly the same as standard American football, the XFL featured far fewer rules, and therefore more of the WWE’s signature violence. The league folded after a single season.
Despite little general following, Las Vegas Outlaws running back Rod Smart somehow managed to gather a considerable fanbase based on his nickname and persona. While the other players had their last names on the back of their jerseys, Smart chose to use his nickname, He Hate Me.
In his XFL promo, he cited the reasons that “he” hated him was because Smart loved the game of football and was an outlaw. He eventually ended up in the NFL with the Carolina Panthers and played in Super Bowl XXXVIII. Trademarking He Hate Me has little to no relevance now, except for XFL nostalgia.
Boise State Trademark Blue Field
It’s not uncommon for companies to trademark colors.
Boise State University decided to federally trademark their famous blue football field when University of New Haven installed their own blue field. The schools reached an agreement that New Haven would refer to their field as blue and yellow to avoid any confusion.
The Broncos have played on a blue field since 1986. At the time, it was the only non-green colored playing field in sports.