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Rebranding the Big Ten?

Posted in Branding, Goodwill, Trademarks

–Dan Kelly, Attorney

College sports aficionados are likely familiar with the Big Ten Conference.  Beginning in 1912, there were ten schools in the Big Ten.  From 1949 through 1990, those ten schools were Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Michigan State, Minnesota, Northwestern, Ohio State, Purdue, and Wisconsin.  (Michigan State replaced Chicago in 1949.)  In 1990, Penn State joined the conference, and no schools left, meaning that the Big Ten had eleven schools.  The Big Ten chose not to rename itself, but it did come up with a clever new logo:

In case you missed it, look at the negative space surrounding the “T” in the logo–it forms the number 11.

According to the Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delaney, the Big Ten is currently studying the prospect of expanding its membership.  In theory, if the Big Ten had twelve or more schools, then the Big Ten could split into two divisions for football and hold a championship game between the winners of each division, much like is already done by the Atlantic Coast Conference (the ACC), the Big Twelve, and the Southeastern Conference (the SEC).  Mr. Delaney insists that the addition of a championship game for football is not the driving force behind the expansion study.

As may be expected, rumors are flying about which schools might be invited to apply for membership in the Big Ten, and when.  Missouri, Nebraska, Rutgers, and Pittsburgh have all been mentioned.  I am wondering what happens to the name and logo of the conference, should it expand.  Obviously, the name BIG TEN has survived, and probably thrived and increased goodwill, over the past twenty years that it has had eleven schools.  Even so, the name becomes increasingly irrelevant with the addition of more schools.  Even as a nod to history, what school would want to enter without a name change to the conference, instantly becoming a school that is inherently not suggested by the name of the conference.  (This has apparently not bothered Penn State, at least not in any way that is publicly evident.)  Rebranding is not cheap, and it carries some risks.  Further, the reach of rebranding would likely extend to the Big Ten Network, the Big Ten’s successful cable channel.

These are obviously not insurmountable hurdles, but I think the demise of BIG TEN as a well-known trademark in the collegiate domain is not far behind future expansion of the Big Ten Conference, if it comes to pass.  If so, it will be sad to see the loss of a good, strong, two-syllable trademark that has stood the test of time.