July 26, 2003
By Andrew Ratner
Originally published July 24, 2003
When it offered to name its stadium for the late Baltimore Colts legend Johnny Unitas, after the professional football team in town said it couldn't afford to, Towson University was viewed by many fans as riding to the rescue.
It ended up riding into a crossfire.
The university's plan to dedicate its newly expanded outdoor sports facility as "Johnny Unitas Stadium" is perhaps the most visible emblem now at stake as Unitas' extended family battles for control of the license to his famed name.
The fight has the potential to cloud what has been, to this point, a public relations dream for the university.
Towson said it remains committed to dedicating the new name at halftime of its Oct. 11 "homecoming" game against the College of the Holy Cross of Worcester, Mass. Big, block pewter letters will be affixed above the main fašade shortly before that date, said Susanna Craine, a spokeswoman.
But that game comes a month before the Maryland Court of Special Appeals is due to hear the case between Unitas' eldest son, John C. Unitas Jr., and a group led by Unitas' widow, Sandra. Both are vying for the Unitas name license, which marketing experts estimate could generate $250,000 or more a year.
The university signed a "memorandum of understanding" last spring with Sandra Unitas and attorney Charles M. Tatelbaum, who formerly represented the quarterback, to rename its stadium for the football Hall of Famer. Various details, including potential use of the Unitas name on souvenirs, remain to be worked out, Craine said.
Sandra Unitas said this week that her group has "followed everything by the book."
Unitas Jr. said he is honored by the school's gesture. But he is uncertain that his stepmother and associates will gain the proper agreements to protect his father's trademarked name on everything from the stadium to soda cups and T-shirts.
"It's not a greed grab," said his attorney, Robert R. Bowie Jr. "It's a management question."
Meanwhile, the university maintains that it negotiated in good faith with Sandra Unitas and Tatelbaum, who have been in control of the licensing company Unitas Management Corp. since a February ruling in their favor in Baltimore County Circuit Court.
"When the university entered into the agreement, the Baltimore County Circuit Court had ruled that Mrs. Unitas and Tatelbaum had authority to act for Unitas Management Corp. and there was no order staying their authority pending an appeal," school counsel Michael Anselmi said in a statement.
Unitas died Sept. 11 at age 69, just weeks after the school hired him part-time to promote its athletic program. Although he played for the University of Louisville, he has sent three of his eight children through Towson: His oldest daughter and youngest son, Janice and Chad, graduated from the school, and his youngest daughter, Paige, begins her junior year soon. After Unitas died, the school asked Sandra Unitas to fill his ambassador role. She accepted the job, which pays about $7,500 a year, Craine said. With school officials, she has helped to promote Towson Tiger athletics and the completion of a $32 million stadium renovation, which began in 1999.
The stadium, nestled in a hollow on the Baltimore County campus, used to seat 5,000 and have a grass field. It now accommodates about 11,200, has an artificial surface and a new field house for training, offices and classes. The facility is used for football, men's and women's lacrosse, field hockey and track and field programs.
Even as the Baltimore Ravens last winter fended off a groundswell of emotion for them to rename their home field for the beloved Colt -- opting instead for a roughly $75 million, 15-year sponsorship with M&T Bank -- Towson seized on the potential of the Unitas name to enhance fund-raising and good will.
Shortly before Unitas died, the school, with his blessing, refashioned its stadium fund-raising campaign around his image. Various levels of donors were designated as "Friends of Unitas" or "Golden Arm Circle" members.
After his unexpected death of a heart attack, the school approached Sandra Unitas to seek permission to name the stadium for her husband. Towson announced its plan at a ceremony with former Colts in the spring. A sign on the stadium showing the stoop-shouldered quarterback in a Colts helmet advertises the dedication to come.
Several outside experts backed the university's right to proceed. They said its agreement appeared "in good faith" and that the institution appeared to be in a position to seek damages if someone sought action against it.
"I don't see Towson having much downside financially from going forward," said Dennis Howard, of the Warsaw Sports Marketing Center at the University of Oregon. "Given the tremendous potential and opportunity for them, fighting for name recognition in a market with the [University of Maryland] Terrapins, I would encourage them to move forward."
More licensing battles may arise as a generation of sports stars who were the first to have their images and fame magnified by television pass on, said Bob Williams, president and chief executive officer of Burns Sports & Celebrities Inc., an Illinois sports marketer that worked with Unitas. Arguments over the use of a celebrity's name can seem unseemly, but they are at the heart of intellectual property law.
Beyond even a name, celebrities can trademark their iconic style or shape. Michael Jordan, for example, owns the right to the silhouette of a man rising, splay-legged, preparing to dunk a basketball, used for his Nike sneakers. A person drawn in that shape is essentially assumed to be Jordan, said Clark C. Griffith, a Minneapolis sports marketing attorney. Griffith's father owned the Twins baseball team from 1961 to 1984, and his great-uncle was a pivotal figure in baseball history and namesake for old Griffith Stadium in Washington -- "before naming rights paid," Griffith said.
Earlier this year, the widow of race driver Dale Earnhardt halted KAnnapolis, N.C., from using signs and other means to direct highway travelers to a new statue of her husband in the center of town. Teresa Earnhardt argued that the town needed her permission if it was seeking to capitalize on his name for economic development gain.
"For the Unitases, to muddy up the waters in their hometown is not healthy; if I were them, I would sit down and settle this," said Jeff Bliss, president of the Javelin Group, a sports marketing company in Alexandria, Va. "It would benefit them and Johnny's name and image. There's no way Johnny can come back and defend himself."