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IP Strategy

How Intellectual Property Rights Impact Sports

Even without fans in the stands or the summer Olympics, the sports industry was worth $388.28 billion worldwide in 2020. As the threat of COVID recedes, the industry is predicted to reach a global worth of $440.77 billion in 2021, according to this year’s Sports Global Market Report. While some of this worth can certainly be attributed to the experience of participating in or watching sporting events, much of it is due to the massive amounts of intellectual property related to sports equipment, brands, experience, and more. 

4 Types of Intellectual Property in Sports

Intellectual property in sports spans trademarks, patents, industrial designs, and copyrights. Together, these IP rights make up sports as we know them today.


Modern sports is all about brands, be it teams, personas, or equipment. These brands are, in general, trademarks that carry value. Nike’s “swoosh” icon is valued at $14.528 billion! The NBA and MLB are entering the world of blockchain with trading card-like NFTs (Non-Fungible Tokens), which requires a new approach to trademarks. The NBA registered for a trademark on its own NFT marketplace with the USPTO in 2019, while the MLB is opting to sell through existing marketplace Candy Digital. 

Perhaps the most newsworthy trademark news in the sports industry right now is the ability for college athletes to capitalize on their names, images, and likenesses. Before this year, the NCAA did not allow student-athletes to partner with brands, whether paid or unpaid. Now, state laws are overriding this limitation. This change will likely impact how schools are able to profit from names and existing corporate partnerships of their own. One specific example of the impact of this legislation is how schools and athletes will approach compensation for EA Sports’ latest college football video game. 


Professional and amateur athletes alike rely on specialized equipment, whether it’s a baseball bat or wearable technology. While some sporting equipment doesn’t seem all that innovative, there are thousands of patents protecting its designs, materials, manufacturing, and more. USPTO subclassifications under Class 473 (Games Using Tangible Projectile) include playing surfaces, pitching mounds, rackets, darts, and many more. Class 482 (Exercise Devices) includes patents for hurdling, starting blocks, and horizontal bars. 

The game of golf alone, since 1976, has amassed more than 22,000 patents. These protections cover clubs, balls, and more designed by both the industry’s biggest brands and individual inventors. Another aspect of the sporting industry quickly collecting patents is the technology behind the fan experience and interactions. Real-time analytics, video games and esports, betting, and fantasy leagues all require specialized technology protected by patents.


Not every element of the game can be covered by a utility patent. Some are instead considered designs and are protected by design patents or industrial design rights. Golf courses, apparel, stadiums, and equipment all fall within this category of IP.


Sports would not be what we know them as today if not for broadcasting rights. The ability to share competitions around the world allows media companies to profit from advertisers and subscribers. Meanwhile, teams and organizers benefit from the sale of their copyrighted events. Perhaps the most high-profile example is NBC Universal’s lucrative deal with the International Olympic Committee.