Staying ahead of the game

Client story  \  26 Apr 2019

With close to an 80 percent win rate, the All Blacks is one of the most successful teams in sporting history; and their skill, power and mana has become part of our national identity. But the All Blacks’ reputation is not just a matter of national pride for Kiwis—the success of all our representative teams helps bring in vital revenue that goes into supporting and promoting players and the game from the grassroots up.

Founded in 1892, New Zealand Rugby (NZR) is responsible for leading, supporting, growing and promoting our national game. It’s among our country’s largest sports organisations and works to ensure rugby is run smoothly and effectively at all levels. NZR manages our national teams (the All Blacks, Black Ferns, Māori All Blacks, All Blacks Sevens, Black Ferns Sevens, and NZ Under 20s), administers our domestic interprovincial competitions, and collaborates with overseas rugby bodies to run international competitions and test matches.

The All Blacks might be the most high-profile commercial face of rugby in New Zealand, but NZR is also focused on promoting and supporting rugby at school and club level as well as across 26 provincial unions. Naturally, that requires money.

Licensing, sponsorship, broadcasting rights and merchandising deals provide a significant revenue stream for NZR. NZR holds the intellectual property (IP) rights to its teams’ branding and trade marks, and is able to leverage off their powerful reach.

Broadcast rights and sponsorship deals account for a large proportion of that revenue, says Michelle Campbell NZR’s in-house legal counsel.

"To survive as a sporting organisation, we need to look outside New Zealand for investment, and that means global sponsorships,” she says. “We’ve been very fortunate to have adidas as our principal partner of NZR for a number of years, and with AIG coming on board, we’re focused on growing the global presence of our brand."

In a broadcasting setting, copyright is crucial and extends to archive footage, online content, team photos and the haka. There’s also the less tangible know-how and trade secrets area of IP, which Michelle says can be harder to put your finger on.

“We don’t have a secret recipe for the All Blacks, but there are many things that go into making them a successful team: coaching techniques, analysis of player performance and know-how that’s unique to how we look at the game.”

Protecting all of these assets is essential, says AJ Park Senior Associate Kieran O’Connell, who helps NZR manage its IP.

“There are very few sports teams around the world that have a higher profile than the All Blacks,” he says. “Not only are they the best rugby team in the world and have been for the last 10 years, but they win international awards ahead of some of the world’s best-known sporting teams and individuals.”

NZR has secured licensing deals and collects royalties from the sales of a variety of items, from All Blacks branded watches and scuffs to roll-on deodorant, camping chairs and duvet covers. While much of NZR’s IP is related to branding, All Blacks is a registered trade mark, as is the fern device.  

“We’d never claim to own the silver fern—that’s a national symbol—but our fern has around 10 different characteristics that distinguish it from other ferns, and it gets misused a lot,” says Michelle.

NZR has worked with AJ Park on a strategic approach to protecting all of this IP, prioritising brands and key markets for protection. Safeguarding all its brands globally is cost prohibitive, so NZR focuses on the traditional markets of Europe and the UK, plus the SANZAAR unions (South Africa, New Zealand, Australia and Argentina). With the World Cup approaching, Japan is also an important region.

“From a commercial perspective, the All Blacks brand is the one most organisations want to associate with,” says Michelle. “Wherever we register that mark, we also register the fern—and we’ve done that in as many markets as are relevant.”

AJ Park puts trade mark registrations in place and works with NZR to help enforce its IP rights when they’re abused, sometimes taking action through the courts where appropriate. Infringement is constant and occurs at different levels of severity, from full-scale counterfeit supporters gear, to those trying to associate their product or organisation with the All Blacks when they don’t have the rights to.

“It might be a commercial entity that’s adopted the fern device, or an organisation using images of the All Blacks to promote whatever they’re selling,” says Kieran. “It can be illegal to suggest a commercial relationship or association with the All Blacks when there isn’t one.”

Counterfeit jerseys sold predominantly through online platforms will always be a major form of infringement against NZR’s IP rights. Michelle says one of the biggest challenges NZR faces is the ease with which people can set up online sales of unauthorised All Blacks merchandise.

"Over the last five years, counterfeiting has grown astronomically. It’s very hard to find out who they are, and we’ve changed how we look at monitoring and enforcing our rights. We used to worry about flea markets, but there are now factories in China that can produce hundreds of thousands of items—dealing with that is really difficult."

AJ Park helps NZR monitor these platforms, and Michelle says the firm has brought significant value to its IP protection across the board.

AJ Park understands our business and the unusual environment we operate in. Kieran provides really timely, practical and commercially savvy advice.

“New Zealanders feel very attached to the All Blacks brand, so the way we deal with IP infringements here is quite different. It’s about balancing the need to protect our assets, and educating supporters about what they can and can’t do to support the team Accordingly, we generally take a more measured approach that focuses on education. We need to protect our brand so that we can safeguard our revenue streams and invest in rugby from the All Blacks right down to school kids.”

Later this year, when Kiwis are supporting the All Blacks in Japan, IP protection will be an integral, but invisible, part of achieving that goal.

Written by: Deirdre Coleman 
Photo credit: Grant Maiden