Photo Credit: https://www.instagram.com/buffalofambase/
In an October 17th Instagram post, #TheOriginators of Bills Mafia announced
“we aren’t going anywhere”
On October 16, 2020, Josh Gerben, founder of a trademark firm called Gerben Intellectual Property, informed the Twitter-world that the Buffalo Bills had filed a trademark application for “BILLS MAFIA”, with the intention of selling clothing containing the popular phrase. According to the website USPTO.report, Buffalo Bills, LLC applied for a trademark containing the specific text mark, in addition to a Bills Mafia logo, containing the “Bills” wordmark and features of the primary logo representing the charging buffalo.
Many disgruntled fans and members of the media did not take the news as well as other fanbases around the NFL would have expected. With the viral phrase first being adopted as the team’s official hashtag on Twitter, and fans soon having the option to buy official Buffalo Bills gear bearing the Bills Mafia moniker, why would there be so much negativity surrounding the Bills’ decision to trademark the phrase? To understand that, you must first understand Bills Mafia.
“A movement created by the fans and embraced by the players.“ When you click on the “About Us” tab of BuffaloFamBase.com – formerly BillsMafia.com – this phrase is in bold letters at the top of the page. Bills Mafia founder Del Reid will tell you that Bills Mafia came into existence by accident. In fact, he states this fact in a September 10, 2012 blog posted entitled “What does #BillsMafia Stand For?”. Accident or not, what began as a few people on the internet trolling Adam Schefter for what they believed was an unfair shot at Bills favorite Stevie Johnson has grown into a badge of honor for Buffalo Bills fans across the world. Reid states “It’s more than a hashtag. It’s more than any one person. It’s a mindset. A way of life.” In actuality, it is a family of sorts. Which is why Reid does not just call Bills Mafia a fanbase; Bills Mafia is the #FamBase.
Reid also had a vision larger than simply gaining Twitter followers. According to a September 2018 article debuting WGRZ.com’s series entitled “Meet the Mafia“, Reid began “promoting local fundraisers, highlighting raffles and events for people battling cancers and other diseases” as his notoriety began to rise amongst what would become Bills Mafia. These endeavors lead to Reid founding his own t-shirt company, known as “26 Shirts”. With a new t-shirt design every two weeks of the year – hence the name 26 Shirts – this company would donate to charities and many others in need. As of October 18, 2020, 26 Shirts has raised $912,670 to be donated to those in need.
Reid’s endeavors do not stop with 26 Shirts. Reid helped promote the idea of donating to Andy Dalton’s charity in early 2018 for Andy’s role in ending the Buffalo Bills’ playoff drought. The final result was $450,000 worth of donations from Bills Mafia. How about when Jerry Coleman decided to call Buffalo a “city of losers”? Del Reid encouraged Bills Mafia to donate to an Alzheimer’s Association, resulting in $7,000 donated, in Jerry Coleman’s name, to combat the disease that took the life of Coleman’s mother. How about when NBC Sports Chicago decided to call Bills Mafia “the laughing stock of the NFL” and stated the fans “drink to make their team fun to watch”? Reid helped organize $25 dollar donations from Bills Mafia to the Bear Necessities Pediatric Cancer Foundation, resulting in nearly $10,000 being raised for the charity. The examples of generosity coming from Bills Mafia, spearheaded by Del Reid, go on and on.
But Why The Frustration Over the Bills’ Trademark Application?
Buffalo Bills and Buffalo Sabres owners Terry and Kim Pegula have had a tumultuous relationship with fans of their teams, particularly over the past few years. Sabres fans have seen their team owner go from saying “If I want to make some money, I’ll go drill another (oil) well” in 2011, to instituting an internal cap in 2020. Sabres fans also heard their co-owner and team president insult the fanbase, saying “We (the Sabres) have a little bit more information than maybe a fan does” in response to fan’s criticisms of team management.
Additionally in 2016, the Bills opposed Buffalo FamBase, Inc.’s attempt to trademark Bills Mafia “because the use and registration of (Buffalo FamBase’s) Designation is likely to dilute the distinctive quality of (the Bills’) famous Buffalo Marks”.
It is true that it would be an illegal infringement on the Buffalo Bills’ intellectual property to trademark already protected marks and designs. Allowing “Bills” to be trademarked in a capacity in which it references the already trademarked “Buffalo Bills” famous marks would be a violation of the Lanham Act, which acts to prohibit trademark infringements, among other things. However, Buffalo-area fans equated this latest move by the team and the owners as another slap in the face to the fanbase, or FamBase.
This is also not the first case of the fans believing the Pegulas have taken something that is not theirs. In October of 2016, WGR550 and the Buffalo Sabres announced that their weekday morning hockey talk show would no longer be called “Sabres Hockey Hotline”, but instead would be called “The Instigators”. This was a curious name for the radio program, considering a popular Buffalo Sabres podcast had existed since December of 2011 that was similarly named “The Instigator Podcast”. Additionally, The Instigator Podcast is hosted on a blog called “Two in the Box”, and in November of 2016 the Rochester Americans – also owned by Terry Pegula featuring Kim Pegula as team president – introduced a “season-long web series” similarly titled “Two In The Box”.
Coincidence or not, fans are going to pay extra attention when their team owners tell them the team has “a little bit more information than maybe a fan does”, and then the team turns around and has the same ideas the fans have. The fans’ defense of Bills Mafia is no different than their defense of these other perceived encroachments by team ownership. It was perceived as a money-grab by the team and its ownership, who were seeking to take personal financial advantage of something created by the fans and for the fans.
The Good News for Fans Regarding the Bills Mafia Trademark and Del Reid
Though the Bills were dragged through the mud on Twitter and other social media websites the first few hours after the story broke of their trademark application, it appears as if the team’s intentions were good and pure. According to Matt Glynn of the Buffalo News, the Bills appear to be including Del Reid every step of the way this their decision to adopt Bills Mafia. Pegula Sports and Entertainment Executive Vice President Ron Raccuia stated “Bills Mafia is part of our family. It’s who we (the Buffalo Bills) are” and that PSE has “told Del we want him to be a part of this. He’s integral to how this gets developed.”
Reid himself stated, according to Glynn’s article, “The Buffalo Bills understand that #BillsMafia is a community of fans, not just a clever brand” and that he “wouldn’t just sign off on this if it was just all about T-shirts, just all about merchandise – it’s not.” Encouraging words coming from the President of the FamBase himself.
My name is Joe Notartomas and I am a 2019 graduate from the University at Buffalo School of Law, with a particular interest in Corporate and Sports Law. I grew up in Southwest Florida, and before law school, earned my Bachelor's Degree from the University of Florida in 2014. Thanks for reading. - Joe