The weekend of October 20-21, 2017, the Minnesota Golden Gophers and North Dakota Fighting Hawks traded wins in one of college hockey’s most competitive series. While watching the NCHC broadcast, an ad for the “Sioux Shop” appeared on screen. The ad explained that the Sioux Shop sells North Dakota fan gear at Ralph Englestad Arena (affectionately referred to by North Dakota fans as “the Ralph”), the 400,000 square foot, first-class hockey palace in Grand Forks where the Gophers and Hawks were facing off. I was surprised by the ad, especially in view of the fact that the University of North Dakota is no longer referred to as the “Sioux.”
Picture credit: Pinterest.
The Sioux Shop ad also reminded me of a recent experience I had when flying Southwest Airlines, in which a gate staff member was wearing a Fighting Sioux lanyard. As many frequent Southwest fliers can attest, Southwest’s employees often wear memorabilia of their favorite sports teams. I asked the staff member where she got the lanyard, as it appeared to be new. She replied that the University is still licensing the mark so as not to abandon it and that she picked it up from a licensed merchandiser. Apparently, you can also buy Fighting Sioux gear on Amazon.
As many hockey fans know, the University recently changed its mascot to the Fighting Hawks, from the Fighting Sioux, after backlash from the NCAA and a statewide ballot initiative approved the change. The “Fighting Sioux” is also one of several arguably-disparaging marks based on Native American culture that have been criticized in recent years. For example, the Fighting Sioux trademark is similar to the R-word trademark, which was challenged and later upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court this summer. With this political and legal background in mind, I thought to myself when watching the Sioux Shop ad, “Didn’t North Dakota change it’s sports mascot to the Hawks, and, if so, why does the fan shop still bear the ‘Sioux’ name? Can NCHC, an NCAA conference, even run an ad for a shop selling merchandise bearing a name similar to one that the NCAA singled out as ‘hostile or abusive’?” Just what is going on here?
It turns out that the Southwest staff member was right: the University still licenses the Fighting Sioux trademark so as to avoid abandonment. The reasons appear to be threefold: First, the University agreed in a 2007 settlement with the NCAA that it would maintain the Fighting Sioux trademark. Second, the school appears to be concerned that if it does not license the trademark and control the flow of Sioux merchandise, someone will flood the market and stymy efforts to phase in the Fighting Hawks mascot and phase out the Fighting Sioux mark. Ironically, then, in order to effectively stop using the Fighting Sioux name, the University must “use” the mark. Third—and perhaps this is unfair cynicism—money.
The Lanham Act provides that a trademark may lose its viability through abandonment when the holder of the mark both discontinues use of the mark and intends not to resume use of the mark. See 15 U.S.C. § 1127. The law states that nonuse for three consecutive years is prima facie evidence of abandonment. See id. Clearly, the University hasn’t run into that issue yet. However, the issue that the University does face is whether it is making a “bona fide use” of the Fighting Sioux mark “in the ordinary course of trade, and not made merely to reserve” its right in the mark. Id. Reductions in the use of a mark may contribute to a finding of both prongs of the abandonment test. So can failure to take action against infringers. Of course, whether a reduction in use and a change in the scope and extent of licensing shows abandonment depends on the facts and circumstances of each case.
The University’s current licensing strategy definitely toes the blue line on bona fide use. It appears that the University is only licensing productions of 9,000 pieces of merchandise at a time and in limited auctions. Such small offerings surely dwarf those available to fans in the years leading up to the mascot switch. On the other hand, the offerings are in the same category: sportswear. The geographic range of the sales is also smaller than before. In addition to the practically-discontinued use of the mark, the University’s licensing also seems disingenuous. One reason for maintaining the mark is to control the supply of Fighting Sioux gear competing with Fighting Hawks gear, and I’m not sure that purpose shows intent to use the Sioux mark (rather than mere reservation of it). I’m also skeptical that using the mark is helping transition efforts; as one source reports, new Fighting Sioux gear has been known to sell out very quickly, and fans continue to cling to the name–not to mention the Ralph, which has over 2,500 Sioux logos plastered throughout the arena in fulfillment of its late eponymous benefactor’s desire to protest a mascot name change.
Whether the University’s current use of the mark can stave off the threat of abandonment, while at the same time render the Fighting Sioux mark obsolete, remains to be seen. For now, North Dakota hockey fans are stuck between two mascots, and neighboring rivals look on in confusion, with no clear end in sight.