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The Return of Maize and Blue

Growing up, nearly half of the clothes I owned were affiliated with the University of Michigan in some way or another, displaying the iconic colors affiliated with the school: “maize and blue.” Either it was a maize and blue shirt supporting Michigan basketball or football, or a blue polo with a maize block M embroidered on it, or even my multitude of maize and blue hats and visors (yes, it was the 90s and visors were still cool). I was a big time Wolverines fan – and better yet I was a Nike fan, and nearly everything made for Michigan sports was a Nike product.

The University of Michigan and Nike first entered into a contract for the supply of all of Michigan’s athletic gear and paraphernalia needs in 1994. This relationship lasted until 2007, when the new Athletic Director, David Brandon, decided to sign a new deal for the supply of Michigan athletic gear with Adidas. At the time, the contract was worth about $8.2 million annually, and was scheduled to run until July 31st of 2016 (this year). As this contract comes to an end, the big three athletic apparel providers (Nike, Adidas, and Under Armor) have wined and dined Michigan’s Athletic Director Jim Hackett to win the big contract.

And once again, the Michigan Wolverines will wear . . . Nike! In a record setting, mind-boggling contract worth $169 million over 15 years (11 of which are guaranteed, 4 of which are options to the contract), netting Michigan a little over $10 million per year in combined profits and athletic gear and paraphernalia. This landmark contract makes Michigan the biggest earner in college athletic apparel, nearly doubling the next biggest deal (between Texas and Nike). Nike now has four of the five largest contracts in collegiate athletic apparel.

Why does this matter? Isn’t athletic apparel relatively similar if not the same from brand to brand? What major differences would Nike do that Adidas couldn’t?

Let me tell you why this matters: tradition. Tradition reignites the passions of long forgotten boosters and alumni. It re-sparks the passions of fans, old and young, who once donned the maize and blue. And it gives pride to the student-athletes who will wear the gear into battle. The University of Michigan has long been known for its maize and blue. But with the contractual switch to Adidas, Michigan Athletics could not obtain its apparel and gear in those colors. [1]

When Michigan moved over to Adidas, Nike allegedly had a way to prevent the two from using the original colors. There are two theories, although there is little actual evidence to support them other than the actions of Michigan and Adidas: first, it allegedly trademarked the color “maize” for use in apparel and athletics; second, it allegedly copyrighted the process of making the color “maize.” Although there is little evidence the color mark has been formally registered as a trademark by Nike, I believe the sports apparel giant likely asserted its pressure indirectly on Michigan by telling Adidas that it had obtained secondary meaning in relations to sports paraphernalia with the color. As with the copyright rumors, Nike’s 13 year relations led it to develop a process to make the color under the Michigan license, and utilizing copyright law, I think they could likely prevent anyone from recreating that color for the use of athletic gear and apparel.

One thing you need to know is that Nike does not own maize– it is still incorporated in nearly every trademark owned by the University of Michigan and the U of M Health System not relating to sports. Nike could not have likely prevented Michigan from using its famous maize color in non-athletic apparel or in its general insignia. However, I believe that Nike could likely prevent Adidas from using its maize in creating athletic apparel to be sold to consumers and for gear to be worn by Michigan athletes. Not only could it likely stop Adidas, but Nike could also likely assert its trademark or copyright status of the color against any producer or manufacturer of sports apparel (such as Under Armor or Reebok), particularly if they tried to use it in correlation to its former and (yet again) future client, Michigan. This seems to be what happened when Adidas took over the licensing deal with Michigan.

Thus, there was the advent of Adidas’ “Sun” and blue – which has been notoriously deemed as the “highlighter” jerseys by the Girls’ volleyball team. And while some fans enjoyed the change up, it is fair to say that alumni will be glad to get back to its roots. The color change may have played an impact in Hackett’s decision-making process, as Nike was reportedly the lowest bid by any of the big three. While some will be sad to see the sun and blue go, I think the Michigan fan base will be excited for the teams to return to their roots.

Now that Nike will once again be the supplier of the Wolverine’s gear and athletic apparel, the school should return to wearing the maize and blue. Although I have long since packed away my old Michigan maize and blue to don the Spartan green, I will be glad to see the Wolverines once again rock the maize and blue as they face off with the baddest teams in the Big 10. And I am sure I am not the only one.

About The Fashion Docket's February Guest Author: Tyler Seling is currently a 2L at Michigan State University College of Law. Tyler will serve as the 2016-2017 Executive Editor for the International Law Review, and he has served as the 2015-2016 Communications Director of the Student Bar Association. He has a strong interest in soft IP as well as corporate and business transactions.

[1] It also impacts small, unlicensed distributors from making such products.