Leander ISD fighting trademark violators, district lost $25K so far this school year

By SCOTT W. COLEMAN, Hill Country News

Chris Ross is mad.

The Leander ISD director of athletics recently learned that his department won’t hit its revenue targets for ad-supported school calendars and football programs this year.

It’s not because of a lack of effort. And, it’s not a sign that support for the district’s programs is down, said Ross, as he holds up a copy of three calendars, each supposedly representing a high school football program — each loaded with advertisements.

“There are plenty of folks out there who want to support these schools and these athletics programs,” said Ross. “It’s just a shame that their money isn’t going where they think it is.”

The Leander ISD athletic department says the companies who produced these calendars and sold advertising to local merchants did so in violation of the district’s trademark and license policies.  Photo by Scott W. Coleman

The Leander ISD athletic department says the companies who produced these calendars and sold advertising to local merchants did so in violation of the district’s trademark and license policies.
Photo by Scott W. Coleman

In addition to the busy job of running a large — and highly successful — athletic department on a staff of just five employees (far fewer than staff many comparable districts) Ross and his team also have to worry about helping the district police trademark violators and hunt down companies he says are scamming local merchants and siphoning money away from the district and its programs.

Bonnie Edwards, the athletic department administrative assistant, estimates the district has lost more than $25,000 this school year alone due to companies producing calendars LISD says are illegally infringing on the district’s trademarks.

So far, Edwards has uncovered two separate companies selling these illegal calendars this year. The district has sent a cease and desist letter to one firm located in Fort Worth, but the company that produces the other group of calendars cannot even be located.

“There’s not a single identifying mark on that calendar that tells anyone where they’re from. That, to me, should be an indication something isn’t right with it,” said Ross.

Trademark rules changed last year

In years past, companies selling calendars could sell these products, and do whatever they wished with the dollars. Other companies produced and sold spirit wear through local retailers without any problems.

However, in 2012, the school district entered a licensing program that involved registering a trademark with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office for each of its high schools. Since that time, all merchandise sold with school logos or by anyone claiming to represent the district must be officially licensed, and a portion of the proceeds must be paid to the district for use of its trademarks.

Edwards said neither of the companies that sold these calendars were properly licensed. Both companies’ calendars display school names and colors, though neither blatantly uses a school logo. But, Ross said both knew exactly what they were doing when they sold their products.

“The way they sell these things can be very misleading. Sometimes they’re downright lying… claiming they represent the district or the money will go to the district or the athletic programs… that’s just wrong,” said Ross.

Other companies violate LISD’s licensing rules

Companies like those producing the calendars aren’t the only ones violating the district’s licensing rules, but they’re the worst offenders, and mainly because spirit wear sold at retailers is easier to identify and easier to stop.

Ross said area retailers have been very cooperative, and that most often, it’s simply a matter of educating the retailer about the district’s licensing and trademarking program.

“They want to sell our spirit wear, just like they want to sell UT gear, but they wouldn’t sell a Longhorn shirt without that little silver tag,” said Ross.

But some vendors aren’t easy to police. Some are not from the area, and don’t seem interested in complying. Of the two cease and desist letters the district sent in recent weeks, neither recipient firm has responded.

Protecting trademark supports LISD’s general fund

The money raised through athletic program sales such as officially licensed spirit wear, ads sold on the baseball and football fields, and other advertising sales goes back to the district’s general fund.  

“Every year, we enroll more students and more want to play sports. Costs for everything we do go up each year, but we don’t have the luxury of increasing funds through the budget,” said Ross.

In the Leander school district, a staggering percentage of high school students participate in either athletics or fine arts programs. There were more than 800 student athletes across all sports among the among the 1735 students enrolled at Cedar Park High School alone last year. Across the district, more than two thirds of students participate in extracurricular activities of one sort or another.

“I do think people in general are surprised to hear how many students participate in these programs, even more surprised when they realize what support our district is able to provide with the limited resources. And yet, we’ve been successful at all levels,” said Ross.

At Leander ISD, the entire budget for athletics comes in at just under one percent of the district’s operating budget of $220 million. That doesn’t even count the dollars that the athletics and fine arts programs bring into the district.

LISD’s general fund pays teachers

Ticket sales at football games alone generated more than half a million dollars last year, but those dollars don’t go back to the athletics department directly. Instead, LISD Executive Director of School and Community Relations Veronica Sopher says the dollars from ticket sales, plus another $400,000 or so a year generated by summer camps, goes to the district’s general fund. And those dollars go to pay teacher salaries.

Sopher says that 85 percent of the LISD operating budget goes to teacher salaries, and the dollars generated by athletic programs is directly tied to teacher pay and staffing levels.

“We have an obligation to the taxpayers and to our students to protect our brands, to protect our trademarks, and to make sure that the dollars that are generated using our trademarks and our brands… go directly to the students and go back to the programs and help the taxpayers offset the cost of running the district,” said Sopher.

Both Sopher and Ross are concerned about companies, like those selling the illegal calendars, that take money out of the area.

“That money is not going to the district, not going to the kids, and not going to the benefit of the taxpayers who support and own those brands. More importantly, those lost dollars are impacting teacher pay and staffing levels,” Sopher said.

“(These infringements) take resources away from our programs, and that means it’s reducing opportunities for our kids,” Ross said. “We want to help our kids learn and grow and prepare them to be successful at whatever they do in life.”