Fans Fight MLS Plan to Trademark Regional Rivalry

League and supporters file competing trademark claims over iconic PacNorWest event

  • by Jessica Boudevin
  • Published: February 19, 2013

Fans celebrate with the Cascadia Cup in 2009. (Photo by Allison Andrews)

There has been a communication breakdown between Major League Soccer and some of its supporters, leading to a Cascadia Cup conflict.

The Cascadia Cup was created by fans of MLS's three Pacific Northwest squads — the Vancouver Whitecaps, the Portland (Ore.) Timbers, and the Seattle Sounders, dating back to 2004, before the teams were part of a league. The three teams earn points throughout the year, through game wins and other statistics, and whichever has the most at the end of the season gets to take home the two-foot-tall Cascadia Cup trophy. 

Recently, supporters for the three teams discovered that MLS filed to trademark the term “Cascadia Cup” with the Canadian Intellectual Property Office in a preemptive effort to protect the cup's trademark from a nonrelated third party. 

“One consideration was insuring that a third party that wasn’t affiliated with our clubs or the league isn’t able to come in and monetize a tradition that is really part of MLS now,” said Will Kuhns, director of Communications for MLS. At the time, there was no threat from a third party.

The trademark was formalized Dec. 19, and published in the Trade-Marks Journal Jan. 2, under application number 1607055. 

The 107 Independent Supporters Trust is a nonprofit organization that coordinates activities for Portland's supporters' group, the Timbers Army. The group was involved in the creation of the Cascadia Cup, along with supporters' groups from the other two participating teams. The 107ists communicate regularly with the league, as do the Sounders' Emerald City Supporters, who actually have the authority to vote to fire or keep the team's general manager under team guidelines.

Garrett Dittfurth, co-chair of the Communications committee for the 107ist, said that the league didn’t reach out to the groups before filing the trademark, which he said should have been done because the cup was created by the supporters. 

“In hindsight, we realized it would have been better received had we done that first,” said Kuhns. “When we originally applied, I think we erred in not discussing it with the supporters directly, so when they found out about it, there was a bit of a push-back, and that’s when we first started the dialogue.”

Portland_Timbers_Green_Smoke_Ray_Terrill.jpeg

The Timbers Army celebrates a goal by lighting green smoke. (Photo by Ray Terrill)

In response to the Canadian trademark, the three supporters’ groups banded together to create the Cascadia Cup Council. The council filed a counter trademark claim with the United States Patent and Trademark Office for trademark of Cascadia Cup on Jan. 8.

“We founded the Cascadia Cup Council as we created the trademark for the Cascadia Cup,” said Dittfurth. “One representative from each of the three towns will be part of the Cascadia Cup Council to administer the cup in a way that protects it from trademark violations.” 

The council also plans to oppose the trademark filed by MLS in Canada.

According to the CIPO, there is a two-month period in which to oppose a trademark with a Statement of Opposition, which will give the council until March 8. Currently, no opposition is on record.

MLS had reasons for wanting to file for trademark.

“It’s about protecting the Cascadia Cup,” said MLS Executive VP of Competition, Technical and Game Operations Nelson Rodriguez during the Stadium Managers Association Seminar in Miami, Feb. 3-7. 

The supporters are skeptical.

Dittfurth said he’s not as sure of the league’s intention, but that the council is having meetings with the MLS to discuss the situation.

“We’ve had conversations with them, but we feel that we’re the proper administrators and the proper people to protect the brand,” said Dittfurth, who said that the groups will, in part, protect the cup from MLS turning it into a sponsored competition, which has happened with another cup.

The Rocky Mountain Cup, played between Colorado Rapids and Real Salt Lake, was renamed the Subaru Rocky Mountain Cup in a two-year deal beginning April 2012. A statement from the Colorado Rapids said that the partnership means that the rivalry will develop further through special tailgates, deals, promotions and transportation to games. The league wouldn't say either way whether or not they planned to find a sponsor for the Cascadia Cup if they did end up with the trademark in Canada, but did talk about finding bigger ways to promote the competition.

“Our goal is to continue to grow the sport,” said Kuhns. “We’re trying to determine the best way to manage the brand so that it can be maximized.”

Moving forward, talks between MLS and the Cascadia Cup Council will work toward finding a compromise on how the term can be used in league promotions. Dittfurth said that the council holds the trademark, but they don’t want the league to stop promoting the Cascadia Cup. The league celebrates the cup as a symbol of the regional rivalry.

“We’re happy about the fact that we’ve been able to open the dialogue and put a lot of things on the table, and hear the concerns our most passionate fans have,” said Kuhns. He added that the first meeting between the Cascadia Cup Council and the league was a “clearing of the air, almost like a do-over for MLS.”

galaxy.JPGLA Galaxy fans celebrate with banners. (VT Photo)

MLS isn’t only intent on managing the brands within the league, they also plan to focus on trying to manage the supporters’ culture by keeping communication open.

“The supporters who add the pageantry and the color and everything else to our game — they represent our greatest opportunity and our greatest threat,” said Rodriguez. They are an opportunity in that they bring an excitement to the game that MLS has been able to capitalize on to promote the sport. However, if the groups begin basing themselves off of supporters in other parts of the world, things could get tense.

"They look at how soccer fans behave around the world, which is quite frankly deplorable. The amount of racism that goes on at leagues around the world is disgusting," added Rodriguez. If managed improperly, things sometimes escalate into "situations, as they have predominantly in South America, where the supporters' groups show up to training with guns and tell the coach who or who not to play."

Luckily, the league acknowledges that while the groups here are vocal and exuberant, they are very different from other groups around the world. 

"Ours is definitely different in terms of fan culture," said Kuhns. "They may borrow from certain aspects overseas, such as banners, songs or drums, but that's where the similarities end."

“If you talk to Timbers fans and Sounders fans away from game day, they’ll admit to you that they feel a kinship with their counterparts at the other clubs, even though they may also hope the other team loses the whole rest of the season," added Kuhns.

Dittfurth emphasized that many of the supporters are families and kids, saying that the Timbers Army sort of patrols its own section for negative behavior. 

"We don't look to them [the other groups] for how we act in the stands or outside of the stands, where you beat up whoever's wearing another color — that's not going to happen," said Dittfurth.

The conversations that the Cascadia Cup conflict has opened could potentially lead to further understanding between the league and the supporters. One way the league will work with the supporters is by revising the day-of-game operations to include a supporters’ steward who travels to away games with the fans.

“The Portland Timbers, who have a very vibrant and positive group of individuals, about 3,000-4,000 total, who support their team at every game and travel in large numbers to away games, will now have the person who works with them in their home building at the away games with them,” Rodriguez explained. “We’ll look to work with our stadiums in developing a list of permissible items and prohibited items and behavior.”

These rules can help clarify future confusion as far as what can be brought into all stadiums to aid in celebration. Friction has come between the league and the supporters’ groups before, due to fans using flares in stadiums, which were banned by the league. 

The relationship between the league and the supporters is a work in progress, but both sides are committed to keeping communication open. 

Interviewed for this story: Garrett Dittfurth, (503) 260-7525; Will Kuhns and Nelson Rodriguez, (212) 450-1200

  • by Jessica Boudevin
  • Published: February 19, 2013
event photos