A fight over fake merchandise
|[Times photo: Chris Schneider]
Jimmy Thomas holds up an official Super Bowl sweatshirt for a customer to see while working at Super Bowl Souvenirs in Ybor City.
By KATHRYN WEXLER
© St. Petersburg Times, published January 18, 2001
TAMPA -- Wanna buy a shirt that says, "Superbowl XXXV"?
Any shirt with that logo is a dead giveaway: Counterfeit.
No legitimate merchandise is going to misspell "Super Bowl." The NFL approves all official designs before they're printed. That means no crude sayings, no overly competitive slogans, and generally, no street sales.
"There's a number of people who will take the NFL's (trademarks) and team (trademarks) and try to make a dollar off that," said NFL spokesman Steve Alic.
"That's theft," Alic said, "and we take theft seriously."
Tampa will soon be the battleground for the NFL's hired investigators and traveling counterfeiters. It's a problem all year, but it worsens during Super Bowl, NFL officials said.
Everything from bogus Super Bowl caps to NFL sweat shirts is expected to hit Tampa's streets. Their sales syphon profits from the NFL, which gets a percentage of the business. Cities are cheated out of sales tax, too.
But NFL officials argue that the biggest losers are consumers. Legitimate merchandise is a "tangible piece of their experience," Alic said, and fakes are not. Plus, there's no guarantee that the quality of a counterfeit item is up to par, he said.
The black market for counterfeit Super Bowl items is especially problematic for retailers such as Marshall and Jimmy Thomas, brothers from Boston who are licensed by the NFL to sell Super Bowl merchandise. Like other officially sanctioned vendors, they follow the Super Bowl each year. For the month of January, they've leased a store in Centro Ybor.
"We got everything," said Jimmy Thomas. "You can buy a pin, bumper stickers, hats, T-shirts, sweat shirts. I got leather Super Bowl jackets for $1,800."
|[Times photo: Chris Schneider]
Shannon Flynn of Tampa looks at official Super Bowl mugs at Super Bowl Souvenirs in Ybor City.
Skip Ruffkess, director of marketing for VF Imagewear, one of four dozen NFL licensed apparel manufacturers nationwide, said a bogus Super Bowl item is intrinsically inferior to a legitimate one.
"Does it make a difference if you buy a Chevrolet knockoff or a Ford knockoff?" he asked rhetorically.
Legitimate Super Bowl items each bear a numbered hologram sticker. Team colors are always exactly reproduced. And they are rarely sold on street corners.
Ruffkess has two lines, one that is sold in traditional retail stores such as JCPenney, and a lesser-quality line sold in stores such as Wal-Mart.
The upcoming Super Bowl is expected to be a doozy, officials said. Counterfeiters seek out large crowds, and the Gasparilla celebration the day before Super Bowl will be a prime opportunity for illegal street sales, said Paula Guibault, senior intellectual property counsel for NFL Properties.
Also, the vastness of the Tampa Bay area means NFL investigators will be spread thin, she said. Visitors are expected to stay in hotels as far west as beach communities and as far north as Orlando, giving unethical vendors lots of places to set up shop.
"I think it's going to be a challenge," Guibault said.
The investigators have joined with law enforcement agencies in the area, which will help enforce copyright laws, she said. Street corners and markets in Baltimore and New York, the teams' hometowns, will be scoured beginning a week before Super Bowl, too, she said.
In every Super Bowl host city, the NFL seeks a civil seizure order that allows it to hold bogus merchandise until trial. But counterfeiters rarely contest the seizures, and the merchandise is almost always destroyed, Guibault said.
The so-called "Clean Zone" ordinance that restricts commerce and advertising around Raymond James Stadium from Jan. 17-29 is meant to help officers and investigators pinpoint counterfeiters, NFL officials said.
"We expect counterfeiters to be there," Guibault said. "And so will we."
- Kathryn Wexler can be reached at (813) 226-3383 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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