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Condemning Clothes: The Constitutionality of Taking Trademarks in the Professional Sports Franchise Context


Mitchell D. Diles


May 18, 2016

The resurgence in franchise free agency in the National Football League (NFL) potentially implicates the loss of a significant source of local identity and tradition for multiple cities. In January 2016, NFL owners approved the relocation of the Rams franchise from St. Louis, Missouri, to Los Angeles, California, by a vote of thirty-to-two. The owners’ vote also potentially implicates the relocation of the San Diego Chargers and the Oakland Raiders. Though applauded by numerous sports commentators, athletes, and fans, the vote reflects the failure of negotiations between the City of St. Louis and the Rams organization. The approval also sets the stage for a new generation of controversies over valuable team property. This includes disputes over team logos and other trademarks.

Although cities and fans may appear helpless when faced with franchise relocation, one powerful, although rarely invoked, point of leverage for local governments is the threat of exercising eminent domain power. In theory, this action could prevent a team from relocating. During the 1980s and 1990s, efforts to prevent professional sports franchises from moving, which included condemnation proceedings initiated by multiple cities, largely failed. Given the current, broad interpretation of the public use language in the Takings Clause, however, it is unclear whether another eminent domain action could succeed. Moreover, it is unclear whether an eminent domain action could seize a moving franchise’s trademarks given the “propertization” of trademarks and other forms of intellectual property.

This Note examines whether a city could exercise its eminent domain powers to acquire the intangible intellectual property rights associated with a professional sports franchise, specifically a team’s trademarks and associated goodwill. In doing so, it examines the unresolved issue of whether trademarks constitute constitutionally protected private property under the Takings Clause of the Fifth Amendment. If trademarks constitute constitutionally protected private property, the Fifth Amendment provides users of the mark with enhanced protection against government seizures. In the context of professional sports franchises, this would give teams greater protection upon relocation.