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This past Monday, the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) held the championship game of its Division I Men’s Basketball Tournament, capping one of the most passionately followed and financially successful events in all of American college sports.

Held annually since 1939, when the Ducks of Oregon defeated the Buckeyes of Ohio State to claim the first NCAA basketball title, “March Madness” has been a rite of spring for hoops fans across the United States—and now, thanks to a multibillion-dollar international television package, throughout the world.

Of course, not everyone can call it March Madness—at least not for free. Nor can they freely market the ultimate and penultimate rounds of the tournament as the Final Four or describe the survivors of the first two rounds of the tournament, which halves the 64-team field twice, as the Sweet Sixteen.

College basketball, it seems, has found itself entangled by moneymaking concerns almost since its inception. And where money flows, legal action is sure to follow.

So it should come as little surprise that the March Madness, Final Four, and Sweet Sixteen appellations are trademarked terms. However, of the three signature phrases, Final Four is the only registered trademark held solely by the NCAA.

While the Indiana High School Athletic Association often used the words “final four” to describe the last rounds of its illustrious state basketball championship, these words first appeared in conjunction with the NCAA in the organization’s 1975 Official Collegiate Basketball Guide.

There, sportswriter Ed Chay of the Cleveland Plain Dealer wrote, “Outspoken Al McGuire of Marquette, whose team was one of the final four in Greensboro, was among several coaches who said it was good for college basketball that UCLA was finally beaten.”

By 1978, the NCAA capitalized the Final Four moniker and was using it freely to describe the last four teams in its basketball tournaments. Soon after, the organization trademarked the term.

On the other hand, the NCAA is a legal licensee of Sweet Sixteen and March Madness, but it doesn’t own the phrases. While the Sweet Sixteen trademark holder is rather conventional, the owner of March Madness owes its existence to a legal dispute over a video game.


Who owns the trademarks to the terms “March Madness” and “Sweet Sixteen,” often used to describe all or part of the NCAA Division I Basketball Tournament?

The Kentucky High School Athletic Association (KHSAA) owns the term Sweet Sixteen, which it trademarked in 1988 to describe its own state basketball tournament. The KHSAA allows the NCAA to use Sweet Sixteen exclusively for collegiate-level marketing and retains its own use of the term for high-school event marketing.

The March Madness Athletic Association, an entity created specifically to resolve a legal dispute over ownership of the phrase (part of which was caused by a video game), is the owner of the March Madness trademark.

We can attribute the original usage of “March madness” to describe tournament basketball to Henry V. Porter. In a 1939 article for the Illinois High School Association’s (IHSA’s) in-house magazine, Porter wrote, “A little March madness may complement and contribute to sanity and help keep society on an even keel.”

Porter revived his own reference in 1942 with a poem titled “Basketball Ides of March.” The poem included the lines, “A sharp-shooting mite is king tonight/The Madness of March is running.”

These missives from Porter were the basis for the IHSA’s March Madness trademark application in 1989, even though television network CBS first applied the term to its coverage of the NCAA basketball tournament in 1982. These competing claims came to a head in 1996, when the IHSA sued to stop an NCAA-licensed CD-ROM game called “March Madness.”

To resolve the conflict, the IHSA and the NCAA created the March Madness Athletic Association, which exists for the sole purpose of owning the March Madness trademark. The March Madness Athletic Association grants the NCAA a perpetual license to its nominal phrase in order to market its collegiate basketball tournaments, while the IHSA retains use of the phrase to market its own, near-century-old championship tournament.

It’s not a bad way to beat a video game–or beef up a little seasonal Geek Trivia.

The Quibble of the Week
If you uncover a questionable fact or debatable aspect of this week’s Geek Trivia, just post it in the discussion area of the article. Every week, yours truly will choose the best post from the assembled masses and discuss it in the next edition of Geek Trivia.

Personally, I love it when you guys clean up your own quibbles. After perusing the March 17 edition of Geek Trivia, “It’s not easy being Wint-O-Green,” TechRepublic member David H threw down this gauntlet:

“I happen to have a bag of Wint-O-Green Life Savers on my desk. The ingredients are: sugar, corn syrup, artificial flavor, and stearic acid. No place is methyl salicylate (or oil of wintergreen) mentioned. I would think it would say natural and artificial flavor if it used oil of wintergreen, wouldn’t it?”

A few days later, fellow member Rich.frueh answered this quibble as well as I ever could.

“Methyl salicylate is the chemical in oil of wintergreen that gives it the flavor/scent. [Here’s an] extract from the book Perfume and Flavor Chemicals by Steffen Arctander:

“‘2241: Methyl Salicylate–Other names: Methyl-ortho-hydroxybenzoate, Synthetic Wintergreen oil, Synthetic Sweet Birch Oil…’

“If you get the flavoring from a natural source, you can call it natural flavoring. But if you use the chemical (extracted or artificially created) form of the flavoring, you call it artificial flavor.”