17 Nov NFL, Nike fight to keep counterfeit products off the market
At the onthefield.com apparel shop next to CenturyLink Field, only irregular sizes of Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson’s jersey remained on the walls as game time drew close on a recent Sunday.
But several blocks south on Occidental Avenue, the supply situation was vastly different. Russell Wilson No. 3 jerseys fluttered in the breeze, hanging on hooks from the edge of a party tent.
At onthefield.com next to the stadium, those jerseys cost $100 (for a “game jersey”) to $135 (for a “limited jersey”). Under the tent several blocks away, the jerseys were $75. Everything about the tent jerseys looked, from afar, like authentic Nike: from the distinctive wing pattern on the numbers, to the multiple fabrics, to the company and NFL logos, to the “Flywire” V-neck, to the attached merchandise tag.
The one under the tent also was attempting to imitate Nike’s top-of-the-line game jerseys, the “elite jersey,” which retail for $250. How could a jersey that retails for $250 sell for $75? Well, the person running the stand didn’t want to talk about it.
The party tent was just a microcosm of the larger issue Nike and the NFL deal with regularly, thanks to thousands of rogue websites and pop-up sellers outside stadiums that freely peddle knock-off merchandise.
Imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, but there’s big money at stake in this game. Illegal imitations plague all major U.S. professional sports leagues, to the tune of more than $13 billion in 2012, according to The Licensing Letter. And the NFL, with about $3 billion of that total, makes for an inviting target.
The NFL doesn’t know how much is at stake with merchandise counterfeiters, a league attorney told a federal judge earlier this year. But the sale of counterfeit products “is very damaging to the NFL and its Member Clubs’ reputation and goodwill,” Anastasia Danias, NFL vice president of legal affairs wrote in a court brief, “as well as to the NFL’s rightful market position.”
Nike, the league’s official uniform supplier, and the NFL are partners in a legal strategy focused on shutting down as many websites as possible while working with local and federal law enforcement authorities to stem the flow of bogus NFL products entering the country, mostly from China. But even the architects of that strategy have compared it with the child’s game of “whack-a-mole.”
The brands affected most by the counterfeits are reluctant to talk about it. Spokespersons for fanatics.com, the NFL-affiliated retail website in Florida, and New Era Cap Company, the official NFL cap brand, declined to make an official available for an interview on the issue. Nike, which has a brand-protection office at its headquarters near Beaverton, issued a written statement:
“NIKE Inc. aggressively protects the brand, as well as our retailers selling authentic Nike product and our consumers against counterfeiting. We assist law enforcement agencies in their investigations by authenticating products.”
The NFL has multiple motivations for shutting down counterfeiters: It protects the league’s and its brand partners’ revenue stream from fakes and, the league has contended in federal court, it protects fans as well. Sometimes the quality of products is shoddy; sometimes products ordered online never arrive at all.
The NFL this year pursued two federal court cases that shut down thousands of websites selling counterfeit merchandise. The court cases opened a window on the league’s beefed-up efforts to shove illegitimate players out of the industry.
Defendants didn’t show up in either case to contest the action, Dolores DiBella, associate counsel for the NFL, told a webcast audience in September. DiBella, along with Nancy Wygand, the NFL’s senior trademark and digital rights manager, joined in a Sept. 17 web-based presentation called, “A Winning Strategy: How the NFL Tackles Rogue Websites.”
DiBella told the audience the NFL demonstrated its commitment to fighting counterfeit activity in January, days before the Super Bowl, when it partnered with law enforcement on “Operation Red Zone” to thwart international shipments of counterfeit sports merchandise as it entered the United States. More than 200,000 fake items with a retail value of $17.3 million were seized in the operation, DiBella said in the webcast.
Counterfeiters create websites that look every bit like the real deal — the ones created by each of the league’s 32 teams or by league-authorized e-retailers, DiBella told her web audience.
“The cost of registering domain names being so low,” Di Bella said, “it’s easy for counterfeiters to set up sites mimicking legitimate NFL sites.”
Usually, the prominent product on the website is a Nike brand team jersey, with low prices that are advertised as “wholesale” or “clearance.”
The NFL partnered with MarkMonitor Inc., a software company that helps protect brands from Internet counterfeiting, and Kroll Associates, a private investigation firm, to identify and track down the counterfeiters.
In late June, Judge Lorna Schofield of the U.S. District Court in the Southern District of New York ruled the NFL could shut down nearly 2,000 rogue websites and awarded the league $273 million in damages.
In another ruling, issued in September in the same court, U.S. Dist. Judge Harold Baer, Jr. allowed the league to take 1,100 domain names out of circulation. And in this case, the judge ordered defendants to pay $1.7 billion in damages.
The damages award was large, but it was a symbolic victory as none of the defendants appeared for any hearings in the case, filed a response to the NFL’s filings “or otherwise appeared in this action,” the court’s ruling noted.
DiBella, in her web talk, said all of the defendants are believed to reside outside the United States, that the league is limited in its ability to track them down and that there was little hope of collecting on the judgment.
In an interview, DiBella declined to discuss the NFL’s litigation.
But she said one or two successful court cases is not enough. In addition to litigation and working with law enforcement, the league also works daily to send out cease-and-desist letters to suspected rogue websites.
“Whack-a-mole? Online enforcement can feel that way sometimes,” she said.
While cybersleuthing rounds up suspects by the thousands, the league also works with the security departments of each team as well as local and federal law enforcement officials to combat the flow of counterfeit goods outside stadiums and elsewhere.
To be assured of purchasing the real thing, Nike recommends shopping only at the company’s website or seeking a list of Nike-authorized retailers at www.nike.com/store-locator. An NFL spokesperson recommended looking for the NFL Hologram, which “is an essential element of NFL product authentication, and all NFL licensees are required to affix an NFL Hologram to their product or product packaging.”
Or perhaps just looking closely at the product. The jerseys on Occidental Avenue featured stitching that wasn’t straight and stitching that wasn’t present at all.
Some Nike NFL jerseys have re-inforced “Flywire” V-shaped collars. On the jerseys under the tent, the Flywire was a painted-on image; there was no stitching present. Also, one of the most distinguishing characteristics of a Seahawks jersey on all three price levels was not on these jerseys: the numeral “12” on the rear of the inside collar, symbolic of the Seahawks’ fans.
On Occidental Avenue, the proprietor with the jerseys hanging from the party tent declined to be interviewed about the authenticity of apparel.
“I don’t have anything to say. I don’t think I want to be in this story.”
But inside the onthefield.com shop, across from CenturyLink at 901 Occidental Ave., owner Matt James was happy to talk. He lamented the impact of the fakes on his legitimate array of Nike-brand jerseys.
“People who don’t deal with jerseys wouldn’t know,” James said of knock-offs. “It’s the coloration. On the tag there’s certain code verbiage … that aren’t there. It just looks weird. Overall they just look cheesy.”
James said he’s noticed something else about counterfeit jerseys lately.
“I can see them everywhere at games.”
— Allan Brettman
Researcher Lynne Palombo contributed to this story.