It’s easy to go nuts for Lamar Jackson. Young fans have greeted him like a member of the Beatles; his face is appearing on all manner of T-shirts, posters and Christmas ornaments. The hardworking Ravens quarterback has led his team to its best season in years at a time when Baltimore desperately needed a boost.
But when a local brewery decided to pay tribute to Jackson by brewing an India pale ale and selling it in a can featuring a player in a purple "8″ jersey holding a hop like a football, the NFL threw down a flag.
Columbia’s Hysteria Brewing Co. received a letter Friday from the NFL saying they were not authorized to use “identifying marks” of the Ravens “on product packaging and on various promotional materials.”
Ty Kreis, director of sales and marketing at Hysteria, said the company still plans to sell the beer, but the can will have been redesigned. He said the beer will still be called #MVP — Jackson is the leading contender for most valuable player — and the player will still be wearing a purple jersey but it will bear the name of the brewing company.
Kreis said the can designer is working on “tweaks” and hopes to have a revised version to submit to the NFL in the coming week. The beer is still fermenting and is about three weeks from being released. But Kreis had already posted a photo of the packaging on social media — he tagged Lamar Jackson on Facebook — and his phone has since been buzzing with requests.
Despite the sternly worded letter, Kreis said his run-in with the NFL has not been entirely bad.
“It’s brand new to us,” he said. “We’ve gotten exposure. It’s a learning experience.”
Breweries and other businesses often use famous likenesses to advance their brands. In 2017, local breweries named two different beers for state comptroller Peter Franchot, as a tribute to his support of the industry. Union Craft has a beer named after Baltimore icon Divine.
But when they do so without the celebrity’s consent, or compensation, they tread on questionable legal ground, experts say. The Brewer’s Art eventually renamed its Ozzy brew after a cease-and-desist letter on behalf of singer Ozzy Osbourne.
Some brewers might hazard the legal risk for the sake of the publicity, experts say.
Kreis said the idea came to him while he was watching the Ravens overpower the Patriots at M&T Bank Stadium. The crowd began shouting “MVP,” he said, “anytime Lamar did anything special, which is literally every play.”
Kreis said earlier this week that he thought that the label was sufficiently vague so as not to pose any legal problems. “It’s literally a dude with a purple jersey with a number eight. We don’t really see how we could have done anything wrong," he said.
“It never said ‘Ravens,’” he said. “It never said ‘Lamar’ or anything.”
"There’s a bunch of issues here,” said Cynthia Blake Sanders, of counsel at Baker Donelson in Baltimore, after viewing images of the beer’s label on Facebook. “All of us love Lamar,” she said, but without a license agreement approved by the team, she said, “I really don’t think that this could work.”
Even without the beer on shelves, the rendering on Facebook could pose a problem for the company, said Blake Sanders. “They’re marketing a beer that they don’t have a license for, and even that could be a problem.”
A spokesman for the Ravens said that “the organization has no affiliation with this product,” but did not say what action, if any, it planned to take.
“Cease-and-desist letters are much cheaper than filing a lawsuit,” said Will Hubbard, director of the Center for the Law of Intellectual Property and Technology at the University of Baltimore School of Law. Small businesses like breweries typically can’t afford expensive litigation and will often drop the offending product.
The brewery posted Friday on its social media pages a letter dated Thursday. “This is what happens when you celebrate your favorite team’s success,” the post read.
For some companies, the publicity garnered from such controversies can make it worth the risk of legal repercussions. “If you’re a local brewer, there is a certain excitement in notoriety,” said Hubbard. “But when you start to mix sports and fan loyalties, its a dangerous cocktail.”
Still, some sensitivity would likely be in order on the part of the Ravens, he said. “Without a doubt the brewer did this because they love the Ravens," Hubbard said. "The Ravens will recognize that, and they don’t want to end up angering the same fans they hope to cultivate.”
Kreis said he has reached out to Jackson, offering to donate a portion of the proceeds to a charity of the football player’s choosing. He has not yet gotten a response. “We’re just hoping that Lamar hits us up or calls us back,” he said.
Jackson hasn’t, but Kreis understands: “He’s kind of busy.”