Why Your March Madness® Sales Event Is Illegal

Many companies focus sales around the NCAA March Madness

Dawn Stacey / Getty Images

The phrase "March Madness®" may be irresistible, and not only to basketball fans, but using it to promote a business without permission is illegal.

For business owners looking to add a little zing to their own marketing and advertising campaigns, March Madness sounds as good as Black Friday or Cyber Monday, but the official title of the NCAA basketball finals event is trademarked.

The NCAA has several trademark registrations for "March Madness," for various types of uses and products. They also have registered "America's Original March Madness."

Beyond March Madness®

March Madness® is one example of a copyrighted or trademarked title. It cannot be used to describe or promote any unrelated sports event. The Emmy Awards® is another example, with similar restrictions in the entertainment industry.

Moreover, a trademarked term should not even be used as a catchphrase in an unrelated industry. For example, a car dealer might want to brand a weekend sales event as a March Madness event, but shouldn't do so. The Los Angeles Times puts it this way:

"People or entities can't use the NCAA's marks to promote their products or services in a commercial way. That means no posters on doors of casinos inviting people to March Madness gamblepalooza, no Internet ads luring people to websites where they can buy unauthorized March Madness gear and no March Madness ads on websites trying to get people to bars or concerts or events that aren't NCAA sponsors."

Trademark lawyers for the owners of these copyrights watch the internet and other advertising venues to find and prosecute violators.

Why Do Companies Pursue Trademark Infringements?

The National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) maintains its vigilance against the unauthorized use of its trademarks,, tickets, and references to its championships. Their marketing programs are "aggressively protected."

Companies pursue trademark infringements because they have to. If they aren't diligent in stopping others from using their trademarks, they may lose the rights to the trademark. At the very least, they lose the marketing power that the trademark once held. Harley Davidson, for example, relentlessly pursues people who sell knockoff goods bearing the Harley Davidson name or logo. For example, in 2018 the company won a $19.2 million lawsuit against one violator for selling counterfeit merchandise.

The news media is exempt from trademark restrictions for coverage of events like March Madness and the Academy Awards. A sports reporter can refer to March Madness in reporting the action at the NCAA's annual college basketball tournament. Using images or video from those events is another story, and many use restrictions apply.

How Do You Find Out If a Term Is Trademarked?

If you see the ® for a registered trademark or a for a trademark in the process of being registered, you are being notified that you must not use this trademarked phrase without permission in any other business.

The best place to be sure of the status of a phrase or name is the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) website. You can search on their Trademark Electronic Search System (TESS) for trademarks.

Trademark owners often approve the use of their name by creating licensing agreements with manufacturers of specific products. That's why there are "official" March Madness banners. But if you try to use March Madness as a domain name, you would probably be sued by the NCAA.

Check your state's registered business names to be sure you aren't using a name similar to someone else.

What Happens If I Violate a Trademark?

Let's say you start a burger place called Wendy's, or even Windy's. If the hamburger chain Wendy's organization finds out about it, they will send you a cease-and-desist notice ordering you to stop using the name. If you ignore the notice, the company will begin a litigation process to stop you. 

The measures the other party could take, depending on the situation include

  • Seeking a court to give them an injunction to stop the violation until trial or other resolutoin
  • Sending a demand letter (also called a cease and desist letter) informing the offending party of the intent to sue

If the plaintiff's case is successful, they could ask for monetary relief, including defendant's profits, damages, and payment of court costs and attorney fees.

Are Black Friday and Cyber Monday Trademarked?

A search of the government database turns up no trademark on the exact phrase "Cyber Monday," though there are several variations, like TGI Cyber Monday. Black Friday, on the other hand, had several active trademarks. One was for a brewery. Does this mean you can't use Black Friday in your business ad, or that you need to purchase a license to use it?

This article gives a general overview, but it's not intended to be legal advice. If you want to use a trademark but you don't want to risk a trademark violation, search the TESS database, and , even better, contact an attorney.