Athletes and Trademark Protection

Michael Jordan’s basketball greatness translated to commercial appeal and the the strong, durable AIR JORDAN brand. What about other, contemporary athletes?

This blog post looks at the brand protection sought and obtained by major athletes in the US, and describes some common practices and trends. For convenience, we’ll look at the 10 highest paid players in the four major sports leagues in the US, plus high-profile figures from other sports, and limit the inquiry to the US trademark registry. Only active athletes were used. We searched for the athlete’s name as a mark (both names together or first or last if they were distinctive) plus, if we found one and it was held by a corporate entity, we searching for that corporate entity as well. We have included both salary and endorsement data, to see if one was more highly correlated to trademark filings than the other.

Trademark filing volume was quite a bit higher for stars with substantial endorsements – it had a correlation of about 0.47 with the number of trademark filings; the salary correlation of 0.02 was comparatively minimal. It certainly appears that, outside of shoes and sports equipment, most of the value of an athlete’s “brand” is in their recognizable endorsement rather than in selling branded products. Nevertheless, filing frequency rose with endorsement income, as an understandable effort to protect that consumer recognition above and beyond the protections provided by right of publicity law.

The most striking examples of the correlation between endorsement value and trademark filings were in the NFL – defensive stars Khalil Mack and Aaron Darnold made a pittance in endorsements compared to offensive stars – quarterbacks like Aaron Rodgers, Matt Ryan, Drew Brees, and Tom Brady, but also wideout Odell Beckham Jr. Even Alex Smith made significantly more than either defensive star, and Jimmy Garoppolo made more than Darnold. Only Brady had significant numbers of trademark filings; Rodgers, Garoppolo, and Cousins all had a couple, and Brees’ name was used in a filing by AdvoCare with his permission.

Endorsements in the NBA were far more significant than in any other major US league, and more widely distributed, with seven stars making over $10,000,000 in endorsements and others close behind. International stars in soccer, tennis, and golf did similarly well. Six of the top ten NBA players in earnings had at least one active trademark application or registration in the US, too. Only three soccer stars passed the $10 million mark, while five tennis stars (the Big Four plus Kei Nishikori and Serena Williams) did. So did four golfers, all men.

Endorsements and trademark filings were lowest in the NHL and MLB. The top hockey players, Sidney Crosby, Alex Ovechkin, and Connor McDavid, all made under $5 million in endorsements. None had US trademark filings, although perhaps their Canadian endorsements are worth more. Baseball players had a few more filings, but even less lucrative endorsements, perhaps because the sport tends to generate mainly regional allegiances instead of national interest in the sport as such.

The content of the trademark filings were a mix of merchandised goods and charitable services. Perhaps the most interesting was an amateur sports app created by Justin Verlander. Individuals filed a bit under half of the applications (although some applicants later filed under a business entity too), and a couple granted permissions to file to third parties – Brees, mentioned above, and Albert Pujols, who had partnered with a local hospital. Charitable foundations filed about a tenth of the applications.


League Player Salary Endorsements US TMs Owner League correlation -0.108384656
NFL Aaron Rodgers $66,900,000 $9,000,000 2 ACR Ventures LLC Salary correlation 0.014802715
NFL Matt Ryan $52,500,000 $5,000,000 0 Endorsements correlation 0.475685934
NFL Jimmy Garoppolo $42,600,000 $500,000 2 Yee & Durbin Sports LLC
NFL Khalil Mack $41,000,000 $750,000 0 League covariance -1.472222222
NFL Aaron Darnold $40,900,000 $250,000 0 Salary covariance 1797753.333
NFL Alex Smith $40,000,000 $1,000,000 0 Endorsements covariance 50763155.56
NFL Drew Brees $27,000,000 $13,000,000 1 AdvoCare International, L.P.
NFL Tom Brady $15,000,000 $14,000,000 33 TEB Capital Management, Inc.
NFL Odell Beckham Jr. $21,500,000 $6,500,000 0 Odell Beckham Sr. filed for OBJ in 2016, but it is abandoned
NFL Kirk Cousins $26,000,000 $1,500,000 2 Kirk Cousins
NBA LeBron James $33,300,000 $52,000,000 38 LeBron James
NBA Stephen Curry $34,700,000 $42,000,000 4 Wardell Stephen Curry
NBA Kevin Durant $25,000,000 $33,000,000 5 Kevin Durant Charity Foundation
NBA James Harden $28,300,000 $20,000,000 0
NBA Russell Westbrook $28,500,000 $19,000,000 13 Russell Westbrook Enterprises, Inc.
NBA Damian Lillard $26,200,000 $14,000,000 1 Damian Lillard
NBA Blake Griffin $29,500,000 $6,000,000 0
NBA Giannis Antetokounmpo $22,500,000 $13,000,000 4 Giannis Antetokounmpo
NBA Carmelo Anthony $26,200,000 $7,000,000 0 The Carmelo Anthony Foundation, Inc. (2 abandoned)
NBA Anthony Davis $23,800,000 $9,000,000 0 Anthony Marshon Davis, Jr. (1 abandoned)
NHL Connor McDavid $15,000,000 $4,000,000 0
NHL John Tavares $15,900,000 $1,400,000 0
NHL Carey Price $15,000,000 $600,000 0
NHL Alexander Ovechkin $10,000,000 $4,500,000 0 Alexander Ovechkin (2 abandoned)
NHL Sidney Crosby $10,000,000 $4,000,000 0
NHL Jonathan Toews $12,000,000 $1,700,000 0 Jonathan Toews Enterprises, Inc. (1 abandoned)
NHL Jamie Benn $13,000,000 $100,000 0
NHL Patrick Kane $12,000,000 $350,000 0
NHL Anze Kopitar $12,000,000 $60,000 0
NHL John Carlson $12,000,000 $50,000 0
MLB Mike Trout $32,300,000 $2,500,000 0
MLB Clayton Kershaw $33,800,000 $800,000 2 Kershaw Management, LLC
MLB David Price $30,700,000 $650,000 0
MLB Miguel Cabrera $30,500,000 $500,000 3 Jose Miguel Cabrera (3 abandoned)
MLB Yoenis Cespedes $29,500,000 $500,000 0
MLB Justin Verlander $29,000,000 $1,000,000 1 Justin Verlander (amateur sports app)
MLB Giancarlo Stanton $28,200,000 $3,200,000 0 Giancarlo Stanton (1 abandoned)
MLB Albert Pujols $27,000,000 $1,000,000 0 Two apps for a health center filed by a hospital
MLB Felix Hernandez $27,300,000 $400,000
MLB Joey Votto $25,300,000 $250,000 0 Joey Votto Foundation (1 abandoned)
Tennis Roger Federer $12,200,000 $65,000,000 0 2 abandoned
Tennis Rafael Nadal $14,400,000 $27,000,000 4 Aspemir SL
Tennis Kei Nishikori $1,600,000 $34,600,000 0
Tennis Novak Djokovic $1,500,000 $22,000,000 5 Novak Djokovic
Tennis Serena Williams $62,000 $18,000,000 4 Serena Williams (several abandoned) / Aneres, LLC
Tennis Caroline Wozniacki $7,000,000 $6,000,000 0
Tennis Grigor Dmitrov $6,700,000 $6,000,000 0
Tennis Andy Murray $1,000,000 $10,500,000 2 77 Management Limited
Tennis Sloane Stephens $5,700,000 $5,500,000 0
Tennis Garvine Muguruza $5,500,000 $5,500,000
Golf Tiger Woods $1,300,000 $42,000,000 16 ETW Corp.
Golf Phil Mickelson $4,300,000 $37,000,000 6 Mickelson, Inc.
Golf Jordan Spieth $11,200,000 $30,000,000 0
Golf Rory McIlllroy $3,700,000 $34,000,000 0
Golf Justin Thomas $21,000,000 $5,000,000 0
Soccer Lionel Messi $84,000,000 $27,000,000 0
Soccer Christiano Ronaldo $61,000,000 $47,000,000 16 Christiano Ronaldo
Soccer Neymar $73,000,000 $17,000,000 0 Neymar Sport e Marketing s/s Ltda (1 abandoned)
Soccer Gareth Bale $28,600,000 $6,000,000 0
Soccer Paul Pogba $25,000,000 $4,500,000 0
Soccer Oscar $25,900,000 $1,500,000 0
Soccer Wayne Rooney $22,000,000 $5,000,000 0
Soccer Luis Suarez $19,900,000 $7,000,000

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