NCAA Trademarks

Trademark Or “Trade-March”? NCAA’s Arsenal Of Trademarks For The Tournament

March 21, 2024

Each year, as winter thaws into spring (in some places), the NCAA’s March Madness® tournament draws in viewers with its thrilling blend of unexpected upsets, buzzer-beaters, and Cinderella stories. But beyond the basketball courts, a dance around the legalities of trademark use involving “March Madness” and related terms comes up. Despite the evolving landscape of college sports, the NCAA’s stringent stance on the unauthorized use of its trademarks remains constant. As a result, broadcasters, podcasters, individuals, and businesses should exercise caution to avoid potential legal issues stemming from their usage of terminology and logos related to the tournament.

The NCAA owns many of the well recognized trademarks, including March Madness®, The Big Dance®, Final Four®, Women’s Final Four®, Elite Eight®, and Women’s Elite Eight®, all of which are federally registered trademarks. In addition, March Mayhem® and NCAA Sweet Sixteen® are registered NCAA trademarks too. However, Sweet Sixteen® itself is owned by the Kentucky High School Athletic Association, which likely licenses the term to the NCAA (probably for a hefty amount too).

The NCAA has a reputation for vigorously defending its trademarks. For example, in 2018 the NCAA sued a car dealership out of California that had registered and was using the mark “Markdown Madness” in advertising. In 2017, they sued a company that ran online sports-themed promotions and sweepstakes under the marks “April Madness” and “Final 3.” The NCAA even went as far as to sue over the words “Vasectomy Mayhem”. They claimed it was too close and confusingly similar to “March Madness®.”

The motive for their aggressive behavior might be for different reasons than one might think… money. For 2023, the licensing of television rights in the Division I Men’s Basketball Tournament resulted in around $900M in revenue for the NCAA, which is roughly 70% of its total revenue each year.

The NCAA’s “March Madness” tournament delivers immense entertainment and excitement to sports enthusiasts, and even the occasional viewer. But beyond the court, it represents a significant business opportunity, extending beyond just the NCAA, or college basketball. To commercially participate in the excitement of March Madness® without infringing on NCAA trademarks, individuals and businesses need to engage in conscientious branding strategies. Here are several tips for doing so:

  • Use Generic Terms: Instead of “March Madness®,” consider using terms like “college basketball tournament” or “unaffiliated basketball competition maybe involving your favorite school” in your promotions.
  • Focus on Broad Themes: Emphasize the basics like a basketball or net without directly referencing trademarked terms. Decorations, menu items, and promotions that celebrate the overall sport of basketball are generally fine.
  • Get a License: If you’re determined to use “March Madness” or related trademarks in your marketing, the safest route is to seek a licensing agreement with the NCAA.
  • Educate Your Staff: Make sure your marketing and social media teams are aware of the restrictions around NCAA trademarks to prevent accidental infringement.

If you have questions about trademarks, whether it be about avoiding infringement, or even getting your own trademarks registered, our intellectual property team at SW&L Attorneys can help. Just call 701-297-2890, or email us at:

This article is for informational purposes only and is subject to our disclaimer.