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When he bought Phoenix Suns season tickets to give away to his customers, Brian James, general manager of a club called Houlihan's, thought he was exhibiting business acumen and doing his part to back the Suns. But then James made the mistake of advertising his ticket-giveaway promotion.
Suns management told him to stop it, because James hadn't received permission to employ the hallowed name. That right is bestowed only upon those who pay for it, says Harvey Shank, Suns' vice president for marketing.
"It really comes down to utilization of the name and the value of the name," Shank says. "People spend a lot of money advertising with us. . . . People need to compensate us to use our name. People who are involved with us in sponsorships are allowed to use our name."
Shank says that businesses that fail to comply ultimately will hear from NBA attorneys.
Houlihan's is just one of several Valley businesses that have received form letters from the Suns in the past month. The letters, signed by Stephen A. Weber, the Suns' director of corporate sales, state:
"This is to let you know that the print advertising you are running utilizing the name Phoenix Suns is in violation of the trademark for this entity. In order to use the name in a commercial enterprise, prior permission must be received for that usage. This permission has not been granted by the Phoenix Suns. I would appreciate your immediate attention to discontinuing any references to the Phoenix Suns or the NBA in any of your advertising, including radio, television or print.
"Please contact me at your earliest convenience if you should have questions. We appreciate your compliance."
James immediately called the Suns to find out how he could get permission. There has been no response. "I can't get them to talk to me. I've left several messages and I don't even get a return phone call," James says.
Apparently, the Suns bandwagon has become too crowded for businesses like James' and Butch Ryan's. Ryan, owner of Papillons Too, a Mesa sports bar, got a letter because he advertised that he showed Suns games on the bar's big-screen TVs. Ryan called Weber the day he received the letter, asking how he could become a Suns sponsor.
"He basically said there's nothing we can do," says Ryan, who is protesting the Suns' "silly" action with print ads that tout televised "S--s games."
Ryan says he has advertised Suns games on TV in years past, with no complaints from the Suns. "Come watch the Suns on the big screen.' I never had any idea there was anything wrong with that," he says. "It's funny, when the Suns weren't winning and they were getting the free advertising, you never heard from them."
Although Shank insists the Suns have enforced their trademark rights over the years, he acknowledges that unauthorized usage of the Suns name is "more prevalent" now.
The letters have targeted more than small businesses. Best Buy, a major discount chain new to the Valley, got a letter because the store's TV ads flashed the Suns mural, which is painted on a city-owned building across Jefferson Street from America West Arena. "We paid for that mural," the Suns' Weber explains.
However, Laurie Bauer, spokeswoman for Best Buy in Minneapolis, says the letter was sent by the Suns' sales department in error. Best Buy had received written permission from the Suns' public relations department, she says.
"There was confusion within their organization," Bauer says. ". . . We got a letter from the [Suns'] sales side and we contacted them and said, 'Hey, wait. We had written approval to use the mural.' So there wasn't a problem. There was just a little miscommunication on their part."
The entire episode leaves a sour taste in the mouth of Brian James at Houlihan's; he believes it displays a "self-centeredness" that bodes ill for Suns president Jerry Colangelo's efforts to get a tax-financed baseball stadium built downtown.
"If I was a businessman and I was shooting at trying to bring a baseball team here to the Valley and I want the taxpayers to fork up $200 million, I would think this is an incredibly bad PR move," says James.
"I'd be one of those people they shouldn't have to worry about for [stadium] support, but I'll tell you what, they'd better start worrying, because I'm not voting for it. They say, 'Hey, baseball's good for the Valley, basketball's good. These professional sports teams bring all this money into the Valley.' Well, as soon as I try to capitalize on it, they send me a letter and they're going to sue me.