Clamping down on counterfeits

The Baltimore Sun

While the Ravens are preparing for Sunday's conference championship game against the Pittsburgh Steelers, the NFL has sent its own team to Baltimore: A group of investigators is seeking to curtail vendors looking to benefit illegally from the unexpected playoff run.

Hawkers selling unlicensed Ravens apparel: beware. The NFL is scouring the area, fiercely guarding its product and willing to alert authorities if its name is being violated.

NFL officials say that the unauthorized use of its shield and team logos on merchandise happens across the country every year, and that as teams progress through the playoffs, the issue grows substantially in the respective cities. The NFL has an exclusive deal with Reebok for its T-shirts, jerseys, hats and other apparel.

League representatives estimate that they lose a significant amount of money each year to hawkers using NFL teams' names, although they could not provide a figure. Anastasia Danias, an attorney for the league, said that U.S. businesses lose about $250 billion a year in revenue because of the counterfeit market.

"It hurts. To the fan, they're getting an inferior product," Danias said. "It's made much more cheaply and without attention to detail."

NFL owners evenly split merchandise revenue from all 32 teams.

Melvin Ruzicka, owner of the Rav-in store on Eastern Avenue in Baltimore, said he understands the NFL's argument, but he said there is plenty of money to be made all around from the billion-dollar industry.

Although Ruzicka sells only licensed apparel - including dozens of Joe Flacco, Ray Lewis and Ed Reed jerseys - he doesn't fault those who sell T-shirts and hats on the street.

"When the Ravens are into the playoffs like this, there is plenty for everybody," Ruzicka said. "I'm glad we can all make a couple of dollars off of this."

Ruzicka is dealing with a sensitive issue in his own right. In February, he decided to turn his Christian bookstore into a place specializing in Ravens paraphernalia. His business is not connected with the team, so he had to finagle the name just enough to let customers know what he specializes in.

So far, the NFL has left him alone.

"You've got to be careful," he said. "I really don't want any trouble."

Neither do the McClures.

The married couple has been in the T-shirt business for 20 years, and they've navigated the fine line that separates licensed and unlicensed apparel through much of that time.

A Ravens tent run by Dan and Deborah McClure emerged last week, along U.S. 40 near Rossville Boulevard. The McClures have some official merchandise, but many of the T-shirts and sweatshirts for sale are not associated with the team or NFL. The logo is absent. So is the word Raven.

Instead, consumers get "Baltimore football" in white lettering on a purple shirt. Or a shirt with a bird that somewhat resembles a Raven. Or an "I love Joe the Quarterback" shirt. Or "Who's Next, Baltimore Gone Wild!!! Back to Tampa," all laid out in purple and white. Tampa is the site of this year's Super Bowl and where the Ravens won the championship in 2001.

The McClures run their designs by an NFL inspector they know before going to print - to see just how far they can take their merchandise.

As for the idea that they are hurting the NFL and the team by selling unofficial apparel, Dan McClure said he and his wife are simply meeting demand. "It's whatever the people want. The people dictate it. That's what we've learned in business for 20 years," he said. "We don't force something on somebody. The consumer tells us what they want, and we make it happen legally."

At a guaranteed lower price.

Official Ravens T-shirts range from $20 to $30, while a purple and white shirt may go for half of that.

Some fans say they just like having options.

"A lot of the NFL stuff is so darn expensive," said Bob Gilmore of Elkton as he purchased a couple of shirts from the McClures' tent. "The NFL has got its money in television and the cost of tickets at the stadium and everything."

The key to selling unlicensed merchandise, according to attorney Ned T. Himmelrich, is to avoid a direct connection to the NFL and Ravens. Himmelrich has more than 20 years of experience in trademark law and is the head of the intellectual property department at his firm, Gordon, Feinblatt, Rothman, Hoffberger and Hollander.

"You can probably have a purple-and-black shirt saying 'On the road to Tampa.' But can you say 'Baltimore football on the road to Tampa'? That's getting close," Himmelrich said. "Can it say Reed on the back and 'On the road to Tampa' on the front? Will the consumer be confused into believing there is a connection or sponsorship by the NFL of these shirts? A good, unlicensed shirt won't have the name Ravens, a bird or logo and will be relatively vague in connecting to the football team."

McClure said he has had a good week and his tent will be open 24 hours a day until the Ravens' run is over. Other businesses are selling jerseys, especially quarterback Joe Flacco's, on the Internet.

John Heine, director of business development at the Sports Legends Museum, said Flacco's rise to prominence has led to an underground market for his jersey, which in turn has affected the shop. The Sports Legends Museum is the official Ravens store and sells nothing but licensed apparel.

"It's hard to put a number on things," Heine said. "In a perfect world, if that stuff didn't exist and they had no choice but to come to a place like ours, who knows?"

Mark Burdett, Ravens vice president of corporate sales/business development, said he knows the NFL is going after the producers of blatantly infringed material. Burdett added that consumers should be cognizant of what they purchase as well.

"They're buying an attachment to the team and wearing it with pride, but the only person benefiting is the guy selling it to them at the gas station."

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