Anti-Counterfeit Suits Dominate Professional Sports Litigation

Major professional sports leagues play a significant role in Americans’ leisure activities and in popular culture. The leagues and teams are large businesses and, not surprisingly, frequently find themselves as parties to litigation. Docket Alarm Analytics show empirical data on litigation trends involving major sports leagues.

In this article, we examine such trends by reviewing federal court filings from 2019 through the present involving Major League Baseball, the National Basketball Association, the National Football League, and the National Hockey League.

Docket Alarm has identified 323 relevant filings from 2019 until the time of publication. Overall, the dominant case type is trademark. Many of these 45 suits are filed against an anonymous list of defendants, who are identified in a document that is sealed. According to one representative complaint, these lawsuits seek an order removing those defendants from online marketplaces like Amazon and Etsy.

The party most commonly named is the National Football League, which is named in 68 matters (69% as a defendant). There are 19 additional matters filed under “NFL” (88% as a defendant); NFL Properties is named in 34 matters (48% as a plaintiff); and NFL Enterprises is named in 15 cases (100% as a defendant).

Top case types for the NFL include civil rights, trademark, and antitrust. The league is represented by firms including Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison; Proskauer Rose; Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom; and Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld.

Litigation involving professional baseball is similarly split among different entities. MLB Advanced Media, which operates the league’s website as well as other properties, is named in 37 cases (37% as a plaintiff); Major League Baseball Properties controls merchandising and is named in 29 cases (52% as a plaintiff); and Major League Baseball itself is named in 13 cases (62% as a defendant).

Over half of MLB Advanced Media’s federal cases relate to trademark, often to stop the sale of counterfeit goods. They are represented by Greer, Burns & Crain, Sullivan & Cromwell, and Goldman Ismail Tomaselli Brennan & Baum, among others.

In professional basketball, the merchandising arm also is involved in more lawsuits than the association itself. NBA Properties is named in 32 matters (48% as a plaintiff); and the National Basketball Association is named in 22 cases (82% as a defendant). NBA Properties also deals with trademark matters, and is also represented by Greer, Burns & Crain, among others.

Hockey appears the least litigious of the major sports. NHL Enterprises is named in 18 cases and the National Hockey League is named in 12 cases. NHL Enterprises also employs the services of Greer, Burns & Crain in trademark matters.