012313_seattlesounders_isi_mlssb032520110052 Stephen Brashear/isiphotos.com
Cascadia Cup Controversy

MLS Trying to Make Nice With Angry Supporters

MLS made the wrong sort of headlines this offseason when it filed a trademark application for "Cascadia Cup," a trophy created by Pacific Northwest soccer fans. Now, the league is trying to make amends.
BY Matt Thacker Posted
January 23, 2013
7:30 AM
Major League Soccer officials attempted to smooth things over with supporters Tuesday—a month after quietly filing a trademark application for the term “Cascadia Cup.” The move resulted in a firestorm of criticism that has dominated offseason chatter in the Pacific Northwest.

For the first time since the application became public, both sides were able to communicate directly during a conference call between league officials and the newly formed Cascadia Cup Council.

Jeremy Wright, Timbers Army/107ist vice president, said the call offered a “constructive beginning” and left room for compromise.

“Our major goal here is to ensure the people who created, have maintained, and continue to administer the Cup remain the owners,” Wright said. “There was nothing out of [Tuesday’s] call that would lead me to believe we are on a different path, but I think the devil’s in the details.”

The Cascadia Cup was created in 2004 by supporters of the Portland Timbers, Seattle Sounders, and Vancouver Whitecaps. Fans used their own money to pay for the trophy, which was awarded for the best record in regular-season matches between the three times.

The rivalry dates back to the days of the old NASL. In 2004, all three teams played in the A-League. They later joined the USL-1 and eventually all three moved to MLS, starting with the Sounders in 2009.

In mid-December, MLS filed trademark applications in the United States for the Brimstone Cup (Chicago and Dallas), Trillium Cup (Columbus and Toronto), Texas Derby (Dallas and Houston), and Rocky Mountain Cup (Denver and Salt Lake). Those filings drew little if any criticism as those rivalries were primarily league creations.

At about the same time, MLS applied for the Cascadia Cup trademark with the Canadian Intellectual Property Office. The league declined to comment beyond a statement that was released Jan. 10 after the application became public.

“A registered trademark would put Major League Soccer in a position to protect the brand from exploitation by parties unaffiliated with the League and its supporters,” the statement reads.

In an interview with reporters following the SuperDraft last week, MLS Commissioner Don Garber further clarified his concerns. He said fan groups could theoretically offer the trademark to a competitive sponsor or promoter or could produce merchandise that the league does not want associated with it. Garber argued that a league by its nature is better equipped to ensure trademarks are protected.

The supporters groups say those concerns are unfounded. They fear the league will commercialize the Cup.

“The biggest thing is we don’t want it to turn into the Tostitos Cascadia Cup,” said Greg Mockos, co-president of the Emerald City Supporters. “There are many supporters cup around the world and in MLS, but this one really has relevancy because of the importance put into it by the three fan bases in the region.”

Garber now admits the league should have first gone to the fans.

“We have not done a good enough job communicating with the fans up in the Pacific Northwest,” he said.

Michael Orr, who covers the Timbers for the North American Soccer Network, said much of the backlash could have been avoided if the league had approached the supporters groups in the first place.

“I think it really bothered everyone involved that there was no communication whatsoever,” he said. “They could have at least presented the case themselves instead of it coming out through what I think pretty fairly seems like a backdoor way into controlling the trademark.”

Orr acknowledges the situation is unique because the teams existed prior to MLS, and some observers across the country have trouble understanding why the issue matters. Orr said everyone in Portland, from the casual to diehard fan, is united in opposition against Garber and MLS.

Fans have been calling it “Grand Theft Cascadia,” and are questioning the league’s motives, but both sides now seem interested in scaling back the rhetoric and focusing on a solution.

“The tone coming from MLS was a lot more conciliatory and interested in constructive dialogue and not as much of the stuff we saw in the [league’s] press release and past interviews,” Wright said following Tuesday’s conference.

The parties now plan to regroup and come up with proposals to help move the discussions forward. Wright stressed that neither side wants to end up in court. However, the Council hired an intellectual property attorney and remains adamant that they are the rightful owners of the Cup. They have already filed a trademark claim in the U.S. and are prepared to issue a challenge in Canada if necessary.

Frances Jagla, a Seattle-based attorney who specializes in trademark law, said trademarks in the U.S. are granted based on the first to use rather than the first to file.

However, the supporters groups would not necessarily win a case simply because they came up with the name. The courts would have to consider several issues, including whether the trademark had been used in commerce and how much effort went into organizing the Cup.

No matter who would win the legal battle, MLS will want to avoid a public and drawn-out fight against some of its most vocal supporters.

What's your take on this story? Has the league sullied its reputation with fans? Are the supporters overreacting? Share your thoughts below.

Matt Thacker (@MattTalksSoccer) is ASN's MLS Correspondent. He runs SoccerPerspectives.com.

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