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Wednesday, June 14, 2006

The Robbery of the Scion

When do you not own the rights to your own name?

When you're the son of The Intimidator. sports business writer Darren Rovell has a fascinating article detailing how, because of the fame of his father, NASCAR driver Dale Earnhardt, Junior lost the rights to his own name and signature three years ago. To his stepmother:
How did this oddity happen? Apparently, Dale Jr. didn't care much about the business side of racing when he began his NASCAR career in the Busch Series in 1998. Many of those arrangements, including the terms of his insurance and where he banked, were set up by DEI. And his driver's contract, at least through 2002, was somehow a simple handshake agreement.

Dale Sr.'s signature is on the initial trademark filing for his son's name. And perhaps Junior wasn't quite aware of what he signed on April 3, 2002 when he put his name on a one-sentence consent form required of any living person who is either trademarking his or her own name or conveying the rights to someone else.

Records from the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office show that soon after Dale Sr. died in a crash at the 2001 Daytona 500, the rights to Dale Jr.'s name automatically were transferred to his father's estate. As the executor of the estate, Teresa then transferred the rights to Dale Jr.'s name to his father's trust and eventually to herself.

Any person can sell the rights to his or her name, but as Rovell says, it's highly unusual never to have legally owned those rights, particularly for an athlete who's still in his prime. (Rovell points out that many former athletes, such as George Foreman, sign lucrative licensing deals involving the rights to their names, but usually after their careers are over.)
Dale Jr.'s driving contract with Dale Earnhardt Inc. allows him to use his own name on licensing agreements and endorsements, said his older sister, Kelley Earnhardt Elledge, the president of JR (read: Junior) Motorsports, which handles his off-the-course business. But she said that the details of any payments Dale Jr. has to make for use of the name will be kept private, along with the intricacies of the agreement between DEI and Junior's company, and that Dale Jr. would not comment. DEI spokesman Steve Brown said company officials will not comment on the arrangement.
Why is this a big deal?
"With the value that NASCAR merchandise has today, it's extremely important to be able to control your own name," said Cary Agajanian, whose company -- Motorsports Management International -- represents Tony Stewart, Matt Kenseth, Kasey Kahne and Jamie McMurray, among others. "In Dale Jr.'s situation, it's obviously unusual that he doesn't control that."
And Mark Roesler, chairman and CEO of CMG Worldwide, which manages the licensing rights of many ex-athletes, says that this most likely means that Junior doesn't get a full cut on merchandise that features his name.

I know most of you reading this aren't NASCAR fans, but understand that we're not talking about pocket change here:
Of the 20 Nextel Cup drivers whose names are trademarked, Dale Earnhardt Jr. is the only one who does not own his own name. And yet, he (and his name) are among the most marketable commodities on the circuit, with more than $5 million in endorsement deals off the track. A recent Harris Interactive Poll ranked him as the fifth most popular athlete in the United States.
There's a reason Earnhardt is most often referred to as simply "Junior." His dad was "The Intimidator," the largest of the many larger-than-life figures who have been part of NASCAR's history. On top of that, Earnhardt, Sr. died in his car in a horrific crash at the 2001 Daytona 500, the biggest event in the second largest spectator sport in America, at almost the same exact time that year's winner, Michael Waltrip, crossed the finish line. If The Intimidator needed something to further cement his legend, this was it.

Being the son of a god - sharing the name of a god - can be both a blessing and a curse. Junior is easily the most popular driver in NASCAR, despite the fact that he's nowhere near the best. At the same time, he has to live with the constant comparisons to Daddy, comparisons which inevitably leave him holding the short end of the stick. Yet through all of this, he comes across as a very likeable and down-to-earth guy, the kind of dude you'd like to just kick back and drink a Bud with. And I respect the hell out of him for that.
Dale Jr. has said he's in the process of getting the rights to his own name back, although that might prove difficult. To date, he has not filed any action against Teresa with the government office.

"If I didn't have the same name -- and I kind of wish I didn't sometimes -- I wouldn't have to be worrying about it."

Anonymous Terry Mc said...

Good article about Jr. and the name game. As far as racing goes, I do think that he is somewhat better than as you put it, nowhere near the best.


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