Despite the stellar inaugural season the NHL expansion Vegas Golden Knights are throwing down, a dark cloud threatens to tarnish the shine of their branding armor.
[The first of a two-part blog post.]
Part 1: The Case.
When the NHL announced that their newest expansion franchise was awarded to the city of Las Vegas in the summer of 2016, it heralded a new phase for professional sports in the state of Nevada. One of the few states without a big-four professional sports franchise, the decision set off a wave of euphoria among sports fans in the Silver State.
As a sports brand-aholic, my creative juices couldn’t help but start to flow during the period leading up to the big unveiling. It’s always a great time of expectation and excitement, wondering what the name of a new sports team might be and what kind of creativity is being churned by the ownership group and their branding experts. With the birth of every new franchise, there are usually a couple of leaks that float potential names before the final announcement, and this case was no different. We heard it might be Golden Knights or Silver Knights or even Desert Knights.
After five months of anticipation, the ownership and the NHL revealed that the official name would be the Vegas Golden Knights. The choice of a knight for the team mascot was a slightly odd choice in my mind since the only knight that’s ever stepped foot in Nevada is probably outside the main entrance of the Excalibur Hotel and Casino. But since I’m pretty sure pirates never sailed the Allegheny River and lions didn’t roam the shores of the Detroit river either, there’s plenty of precedent for team names of dubious origin.
My immediate ambivalence about the Knights name was salvaged a bit by my hope that a tie-in to the Silver State could add the indigenous element that would cement their solid brand strategy. As it turned out, I would be disappointed there too. I also heard that the “knights” name was a nod to “Las Vegas nights,” which carries with it a small seed of validity. Although it’s a bit of a stretch, and reads like an after-the-fact argument especially if you read it as “golden nights.”
King William’s Court.
The majority owner of the new Las Vegas NHL team is William P. (Bill) Foley. A little research into his background sheds instant light on the new team name. Foley is a 1967 graduate of the United States Military Academy at West Point, whose sports teams are the Black Knights. Hence the name of his financial consortium that secured the new hockey franchise – Black Knight Sports & Entertainment. Foley’s original plan to name the new team The Black Knights was apparently discouraged by the NHL because of its similarity to the Original Six franchise Chicago Blackhawks. His next choice was the Golden Knights. Okay, that seems logical from a lifelong supporter of West Point. Foley hasn’t tried to hide his hopes to emulate the branding of his alma mater, but unfortunately, in this case, logic and law wouldn’t end up on the same side of the ice.
Penalty for failure to cross-check.
First, a little legal history. On August 23, 2016, the new team filed multiple applications with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) for six potential team name options. They included Vegas Golden Knights, Las Vegas Golden Knights, Vegas Silver Knights, Las Vegas Silver Knights, Vegas Desert Knights and Las Vegas Desert Knights. Typical time frame for a response from the USPTO is 3-4 months, but unwilling to wait, the team unveiled its new name and logo design just three months later on November 22: Vegas Golden Knights. Whether their decision to move ahead with the team name and branding design was based on the understandable urgency to begin marketing efforts, overconfidence, or a little of both, their euphoria was short-lived.
Photo: Las Vegas Review-Journal
On December 7, the team received its first bad news regarding their attempt to trademark the name. The USPTO denied both of their applications to trademark “Vegas Golden Knights” and “Las Vegas Golden Knights.” The reason? Potential confusion with a previously registered mark for “Golden Knights The College of Saint Rose,” who have held that trademark for intercollegiate sports exhibitions since 2004. A question also arose regarding potential objections by the U.S. Army whose entertainment parachute team has been performing as the Golden Knights since the 1960s.
Somehow, the Vegas branding team either failed to check on the availability of the Golden Knights trademark, or more likely, charged ahead knowing the full weight of the NHL and its branding and legal might would be a formidable opponent to any potential objectors. Bully-branding, in a matter of speaking.
Undaunted, the Vegas ownership promised to file a response to the USPTO ruling by a June 7, 2017 deadline. This time frame would place the dispute barely four months ahead of the team’s first NHL game in their inaugural 2017-18 season. Not to mention way behind the team’s marketing and sales programs that would by then be well underway without trademark protection.
So, file they did, and here’s where it starts to get interesting. In early August, the USPTO responded to the team’s appeal by granting approval for Foley’s group to use the Golden Knights name for identification and competition purposes. However, it did not give approval for them to protect the logo on its sportswear and merchandise. That request was suspended based on potential further appeals.
That prospect didn’t seem to faze Foley, who pronounced himself happy with the ruling. “We got what we wanted. We’ve got Golden Knights for hockey and we knew it would work out. We’re not worried about the other issue. That will work itself out in time.”
Send in the Army.
Not unexpectedly, the United States Department of the Army notified the USPTO in September 2017 that they intended to oppose the trademark ruling and filed their official opposition on January 10, 2018. The College of Saint Rose requested an extension to oppose, and it was also granted. The Vegas team was then given a deadline of 40 days to respond (why does this feel more like a tennis match than a hockey game?). There are far more legal layers to this battle, but in the interest of keeping everyone from nodding off, this abridged version should give you the overall picture.
Where does it stand now that the Vegas Golden Knights are set to compete in the Stanley Cup Finals in their very first season of play? As of May 2018, the team has filed twice for suspension of the proceedings pending settlement negotiations. The latest one was granted by the USPTO on April 24. Reading between the blue lines, the Golden Knights aren’t willing to have a nasty trademark dispute tarnish their storybook quest for The Cup and are likely negotiating with the Army and/or the College of Saint Rose to hash out a resolution everyone can live with. I’m guessing that means an influx of cash to both of the opposing institutions, regardless of Foley’s previous statements that “….we’re not paying anyone anything.”
So what brings this case to the Sports Brand Jury courtroom? Aside from the problematic legal battle and its unnecessary distractions to the feel-good NHL story of the year (and maybe the decade), it’s SBJ’s assertion that some major missteps with the team’s branding strategy and design are worth reviewing.
The most serious charges against the Silver State’s Golden Knights? Bully-branding? Precious metal envy? Blatant ignoring of SBJ Branding Rule # 13? (To be explained in the next post.) In part two of this post, we’ll look at the evidence to support these and a few other charges, and pronounce a verdict. So stay tuned. It’s possible the next Stanley Cup winning team could be headed to the Sports Brand Jury penalty box.
[Next week’s post:]
Part 2: The evidence and the verdict.
* Let us know what you think! Sports Brand Jury welcomes your opinions, comments, and suggestions for future cases. If we use your idea for a future post (if we haven’t already planned on it), we’ll send you some SBJ swag as a thank you.