‘Washington Commanders’ trademark denied by USPTO: What’s next for franchise?

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USA Today

It’s been a seismic offseason for the Washington Commanders. Most notably, the franchise is on the doorstep of getting a new owner with Josh Harris‘ group reaching an agreement to buy the team for $6.05 billion. After the other NFL owners approve the sale, this new regime may be faced with a developing situation regarding the team’s name. The United States Patent and Trademark Office denied the franchise’s application to trademark the “Washington Commanders” moniker. 

Specifically, the application was denied for two reasons. The first was due to “likelihood of confusion” with the “Commanders’ Classic” — a yearly college football game between Air Force and Army — already trademarked. The other stems from a pending application by Martin McCaulay, a D.C. area man who filed trademarks trying to guess the new team name. The “Washington Space Commanders” and “Washington Wolf Commanders” are two of several trademark applications sent in by McCaulay that have helped lead to this denial for the NFL franchise. 

Washington began its name-change process back in July of 2020 when it decided to retire the “Redskins” nickname, which had been associated with the team since 1933. At that point, the franchise called itself “The Washington Football Team” for two seasons (2020-2021) as a stand-in until they decided on a permanent moniker. That came in February of 2022 when they unveiled the “Commanders” nickname.  

So what happens now? As trademark attorney Josh Gerben notes, the team could file a response to the USPTO arguing that it’s unlikely they’d be confused with the “Commanders’ Classic” game. They could also try and buy out the rights to the game or sign a co-existence agreement. With McCaulay, he did tell the Washington Post back in July of 2020 that he would turn over any trademarks the team may need at no cost. 

Of course, we’ll now have to see if McCaulay holds to those comments now that the rubber has hit the road on this issue. 

From the Commanders standpoint, they do appear confident they’ll be able to secure a trademark for the nickname. 

“The trademark office’s recent nonfinal office action is an ordinary course step in the standard trademark registration process,” a team spokesperson told Pro Football Talk. “We will respond to the Trademark Office’s office action and are confident that our registration will be issued. In particular, there is no likelihood of confusion between our COMMANDERS marks and the COMMANDERS’ CLASSIC football game between the Army and the Air Force. We do not believe that any trademark registrations that were obtained by squatters who attempted to capitalize on the Club’s name change should stand in the way of our registrations.”

So, it does appear like all roads will lead to the Commanders getting their desired trademark. That said, it would be a fascinating turn of events if this situation opens the door for this new ownership group to change the name once again if they are not thrilled with the “Commanders” moniker. 

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