There were still four minutes left to play in UMBC’s momentous basketball victory over top-ranked Virginia when athletic director Tim Hall received a text from an attorney he knows well.
“It said, ‘Tim, are you aware you don’t have these trademarks?’ Hall recalled. “When you’re right in the throes of this and people are comparing you to the 1980 Olympic hockey team, you’re not thinking, ‘I wonder if my trademarks are in line?’ ”
But he is now. For Hall and the university, the text served as a timely reminder that they needed to protect the economic opportunities derived by becoming the first 16th-seeded team to defeat a No. 1 seed in the NCAA men’s basketball tournament.
The win gave UMBC an enduring place in college basketball history — as well as skyrocketing commercial cachet. Seeking to capitalize, the university asked attorney Jason Belzer to register a trademark for “16 over 1.”
Another lawyer, Darren Heitner, was authorized to register “UMBC Retrievers” and “Retriever Nation” with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.
“The thinking is that any brand is wise to invest in protecting its valuable intellectual property, and here UMBC wanted to make sure that it took the necessary steps to be proactive as its athletics brand became the most talked about topic in the world,” Heitner said.
UMBC was eliminated from the tournament with a loss to Kansas State on Sunday night. But even before the team arrived home on a charter flight early Monday morning, the university was assessing the impact of its victory, which it believes will be considerable.
“We’re starting to digest it,” Hall said. “You see reports of $50 million to $55 million in advertising impact. We’re looking strategically — how do we use various facets of this to enhance the comprehensive brand of the university?”
In 2013, after Florida Gulf Coast University’s 15th seed basketball team upset Georgetown and San Diego State University to reach that year’s Sweet Sixteen, the school saw annual donations and out-of-state applications nearly double. Its apparel sales surged.
After George Mason University’s men's basketball team, an 11th seed, advanced to the 2006 Final Four, admissions inquiries soared 350 percent, out-of-state applications rose 40 percent and the school estimates it got nearly $7 million in overwhelmingly positive free media coverage.
Hall believes UMBC’s victory was more surprising than George Mason’s as a lower seed and that the spread of social media in the last dozen years will make his school’s achievement resonate even more.
At the time of its run, George Mason had trademarked “George Mason Patriots,” protecting the commercial use of the phrase on caps, hats, sweatpants, sweatshirts and other apparel.
That is a common among schools that typically receive more exposure than UMBC. The Retrievers play in the America East Conference, which receives far less media attention than a so-called “power conference” such as the Big Ten, which has its own television network.
“What you find is the larger universities almost always have their main marks applied for or — more often — registered,” Heitner said.
The University of Maryland at College Park, the state’s flagship university, has registered trademarks for “University of Maryland,” “Terrapins,” “Maryland Terrapins,” “Terps,” “Fear The Turtle,” and “UMD.”
But mid-major universities such as UMBC often believe “there is not a need or it was not a priority,” Heitner said. “Oftentimes it’s a school that has not had repeated success in the NCAA tournament or other major sports.”
UMBC last made the NCAA tournament in 2008, losing to No. 2 seed Georgetown in the first round.
It’s important that UMBC acted now, Heitner said.
“With registrations in place, the university will be able to better protect against infringement of its valuable marks, properly designate ownership of its items and open the door to new commercial opportunities,” he said.
Obtaining trademark approval typically takes months. The mark must be specific to the applicant. Contrary to some media reports, UMBC did not seek to register “Retrievers” on its own because it is too vague.
Universities are asked in the application how the trademark is to be used. UMBC’s application specified “apparel.” Much of the school’s gear prominently displays an image of a retriever.
Heitner’s Florida-based firm has worked with a number of well-known athletes and other sports professionals on trademarks.
The list includes college basketball television analyst Bill Raftery, whose catchphrases “With a Kiss” and “Onions” were registered, providing a measure of protection on the commercial use of the words. Golden State Warriors star Draymond Green registered “Money Green,” and Heitner said “Dray Day” will be registered once it can be shown the words are being used in commerce.
On Sunday, the UMBC Bookstore awaited a new shipment of custom gear to commemorate the big win: “We Made History” and “All Bark and All Bite.” Purchases in-store and online were surging.
Hall said the university may incorporate references to the victory in admissions and fundraising material. He said Belzer, the attorney, came up with a word that could become part of UMBC’s marketing.
“He used the phrase ‘unretrievable.’ Will something like that stick?” Hall asked.