The National Football League filed a federal lawsuit yesterday against two area businesses, alleging they sold unlicensed Super Bowl merchandise.
League officials said the suit, filed in U.S. District Court in Baltimore, is the first of what they expect will be a series of actions against local distributors and manufacturers of unlicensed merchandise.
Brian McCarthy, an NFL spokesman, said the league has dispatched teams of investigators to Baltimore to search for counterfeit Baltimore Ravens merchandise such as T-shirts and hats.
"This suit is part of an ongoing effort to protect fans from inferior merchandise," McCarthy said. "We have investigators in three cities: New York, Tampa and Baltimore."
The $100,000 suit contends that A.S.A.P. Screen Printing in Millersville printed and sold, and East Coast Sportswear & More in Towson sold, Ravens T-shirts and other items resembling merchandise trademarked by the NFL.
Representatives from A.S.A.P. were unavailable for comment, but the owner of East Coast Sportswear & More called the suit "ridiculous."
"It is the mammoth NFL going after the little local Baltimore guy in a 500-square-foot office ... who is getting two hours of sleep trying to make a living," said store owner Dan McClure.
NFL investigators bought three items of clothing - two hats and a shirt - from East Coast Sportswear & More on Tuesday that bore the Ravens colors; the Roman numeral XXXV, referring to this year's 35th Super Bowl; and the phrase "Defense Wins Championships," according to the suit. The items did not contain the letters "NFL."
McCarthy said that by using the Ravens team colors and the words "Tampa Bay" - where the Super Bowl is to be played Jan. 28 - the companies are "likely to cause confusion to the public in an attempt to deceive fans" into thinking they are buying official NFL gear.
McCarthy said an NFL investigation revealed that A.S.A.P had produced that merchandise. McClure acknowledged that he bought the items from A.S.A.P.
The suit seeks an injunction barring both companies from selling the merchandise in question.
Counterfeit merchandise costs the NFL tens of millions of dollars a year, McCarthy said.
The league will typically notify potential trademark violators by sending them a cease-and-desist letter before proceeding with a lawsuit, he said.
This is the second time McClure has had a run-in with the NFL.
McClure received a cease-and-desist letter on Sept. 28, 1998, after NFL investigators discovered what they thought was counterfeit merchandise in a White Marsh store, the suit alleges. McClure responded several days later, saying that the store had closed.
McCarthy said the NFL files about 10 lawsuits each year for trademark infringement and selling merchandise without a license. Yesterday's was the first suit this year that centered on Super Bowl merchandise.
McCarthy said that NFL investigators will be searching Baltimore-area street corners, malls and shopping centers in the next week, looking for counterfeit merchandise.