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Chicago businessman won “March Madness” jackpot — without any brackets

Charles Besser. Phoingested insystem Wednesday May 11 2011.

Charles Besser. Photo ingested into the system on Wednesday, May 11, 2011.

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Updated: June 13, 2011 1:56PM

Charles Besser didn’t invent “March Madness.” But back in 1987, the Chicago businessman did the next best thing: he trademarked it.

Now — with the NCAA’s Division I basketball tournament worth hundreds of millions of dollars — Besser’s sports and entertainment marketing firm Intersport is cashing in on his foresight.

Last October, the college athletics association quietly paid $17.2 million to Intersport to stop using the term “March Madness,” which since the 1980s has been attached to the tournament.

The settlement — spelled out in financial statements but unknown to most in the member schools and conferences — gives the NCAA sole ownership of a trademark that’s been the subject of legal disputes and challenges over the years.

“It was a good decision,” Besser said with understatement about his decision to trademark a phrase born more than 70 years ago in Illinois.

“March Madness” was coined in a 1939 magazine article by Henry V. Porter, assistant executive secretary of the Illinois High School Association to describe the thriving state basketball championship.

By the 1980s it was in common enough national use for Besser to use it for the title of a TV show he produced about the NCAA tournament featuring coaching legends Ray Meyer and Al McGuire.

Intersport, which stages the high school and college slam-dunk and three-point contests simultaneous to the Final Four, was awarded the trademark in 1989, and most recently was using “March Madness” in programming for mobile devices. It reached an agreement with the IHSA in the early 1990s in which it accepted limited license to the phrase in exchange for a share of royalties.

While large on its face, the eight-figure amount the NCAA paid Intersport for the trademark amounts to less than 2 1/2 percent of the association’s $700 million-plus annual budget.

“Long-term, protecting the vitality of that asset, I think it’s a good investment,” says Notre Dame athletics director Jack Swarbrick, who previously was unaware of the deal.

TV rights and marketing fees — almost all derived from the annual three-week tournament — account for 86 percent of the NCAA’s revenues, and it scrupulously polices any unauthorized use of “March Madness.”

The NCAA deemed that “detrimental to the trademark.” The buyout should “strengthen the value of the March Madness trademark,” the NCAA financial statement says.

For Besser, a Marquette grad and a self-described “huge basketball fan,” who’s run Intersport for 25 years, it’s better than winning the office bracket pool.

Contributing: Gannett News Service

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