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NBA Finals Counterfeiting And Clever Merchandising In San Antonio

As the NBA Finals shift to Miami for game 6 and possibly game 7, the extended series means that money generated by the games will continue to boost the league, broadcast carriers and the host cities.

Based on numbers from the last two NBA Finals in host cities Dallas, Oklahoma City and Miami, the Greater San Antonio Chamber of Commerce estimated an economic impact of about $4 million per game.

That money is calculated from hotels, and sales at restaurants and bars, but a big slice of money that is spent on the NBA Finals, and other major sporting events like it, comes from merchandise sales.

Officially licensed NBA Finals goods are being sold online, in officially-licensed stores and on the streets of San Antonio and Miami, but there is also an elephant on the corner, one that fans don’t seem to mind, but the NBA -- and every other major sports coalition -- is out to eliminate.

This is, of course, counterfeit merchandise

While counterfeiting is prevalent throughout the regular season, Anil George, Vice President & Senior Intellectual Property Counsel at NBA Properties, said there is a definite uptick when it comes to the finals.

From the NBA's point of view, counterfeit merchandise represents both lost revenue, as well as the cheapening of the brand and fan experience.

"We ultimately think of it as a consumer fraud issue," said George. "In addition to that, certainly it also takes away from the legitimate retailers. There are a lot of businesses who can legitimately benefit from a Finals event and we want whoever does benefit to be your upstanding retailers who do good work, who are selling the real stuff."

The NBA didn’t have numbers available for expected merchandise sales over the course of this year's Finals, but an NBA representative said the league and local law enforcement teams had collected over 3,600 pieces of counterfeit merchandise while the finals were in San Antonio through game 5.

Is there any way around it?

Could a vendor not use any logos, and instead use a common font in a design that said: "NBA Finals 2013, Spurs vs. Heat?"

Even though the vendor wouldn't be using any logos or trademarked symbols, there is still an attempt (albeit not a very good one) to pass it off as an official piece of Finals merchandise.

"You had mentioned 'NBA' and 'NBA Finals' and the 'San Antonio Spurs' -- all of those are also registered trademarks of the team and NBA league," George explained. "So if there is any reference to the team or the league, it is actually something that -- even if there is no logo associated with it -- that is intellectual property that’s owned by the team, so we try to protect the team that way."

These criteria seem to be far reaching, but is there any way around all this? 

What if you had a really clever idea for a product, one that has mass appeal to fans, and is even drawing the attention of the home team’s star players?


Enter the grey area

At Ace Screen Graphics, a screen printing shop on the Northwest Side of San Antonio, graphic designer Damien Velasco is printing his own line of Spurs shirts with the hashtag #SPURSHEAD, which is printed across the front of the shirt and is helping boost the shirts in  social media.

Had he considered licensing and copyright before he started making them? After all, he would still be infringing if he used the name of the team and no logo.

"I am a freelance graphic designer, so of course I have looked at cases like that and looked through different things like parodies and novelty stuff where it’s obviously a grey area," Velasco said.

The concept for his design borrows from novelty zombie shirts where you pull the front part of the shirt over your head, revealing a zombie face where your face should be. Velasco simply subbed the zombie face for the heads of Tony Parker, Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili.

"Everybody loves the novelty of literally becoming their favorite player," he said.

Everybody apparently also includes Pamela Firestone, who is Tony Parker’s mother. Velasco said she stopped by on Wednesday, June 12, after game 3 to grab shirts for her boys, as well as shirts for Ginobili and Duncan.

Shop owner Mike Guevara said that on Thursday, the day of game 4, they had completed 2,400 prints in a four-hour span to meet demand, and thanks to the viral nature of the hashtag branding, along with coverage from local media, they needed to hire a police officer to help control the line that had stretched down the street by 3:30 p.m.

The shirts use the Spurs name along with the likeness of three of the biggest stars of the team, so is it enough that the concept sits in the realm of novelty?

How do you categorize these #SPURSHEAD shirts?


Are they the right product at the right time in the right grey area?

Or are they piggy backing off of the moment and selling an inferior product that cheapens the Finals experience?

The argument could really be made either way, but as for licensing, Velasco said he would love to do officially licensed work for the NBA, the Spurs, or any other professional team.

When I asked if the NBA could walk me thorough the process of getting merchandise licensed, their reply came back that it is a need-to-know basis, and I didn’t need to know.

I was able to find some licensing information online, so if you are interested in an NBA license application, go to:

Additional resources for this story:

*Guevara said on Friday that they were finished printing the #SPURSHEAD shirts and once they sold out that would be it. He told me Monday, June 17 that they only had a few left.

Copyright 2020 Texas Public Radio. To see more, visit Texas Public Radio.

Chris Eudaily / TPR

Chris Eudaily / TPR

My journalism journey began with an idea for a local art and music zine and the gumption to make it happen with no real plan or existing skill set.
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