Over the last three years, two-time NBA MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo has been a plaintiff in 52 federal cases in the Southern District of New York. The cases share the same goal: protect his brand, the Greek Freak.
Antetokounmpo’s latest case began Monday. The five-time All-Star and 2020 defensive player of the year accuses Leaf Trading Cards of infringing on his trademarks and NIL. The case stems from a one-year licensing contract, signed in 2013, that granted Leaf, which sells cards, memorabilia and NFTs, the right to use the Milwaukee Bucks star’s name, nickname, likeness, photograph, biography and signature.
According to the complaint written by Antetokounmpo’s attorney, Anastasi Pardalis, the deal ended in 2014. However, Leaf is accused of continuing “to offer for sale items bearing the Antetokounmpo Rights and his Greek Freak mark.” These items are portrayed as directly competing with those sold by companies in business with Antetokounmpo. They also allegedly cause “confusion, mistake, and deception” as to their source, with consumers potentially unsure as to which Greek Freak products are “officially” licensed. In addition, the complaint charges that Leaf has tarnished Antetokounmpo’s brand by selling items “of a particular aesthetic not aligned with [Antetokounmpo] and of a substantially lower quality than the products offered by [Antetokounmpo].”
Last August, Antetokounmpo’s attorneys sent a cease-and-desist letter to Leaf, demanding it stop using the player’s NIL and insisting the company generate an accounting of sales and profits related to Antetokounmpo. Leaf, the complaint says, hasn’t complied.
The complaint offers a retelling of history from Antetokounmpo’s vantage point. In the coming weeks, attorneys for Leaf will file an answer. They will deny the accusations, offer their own set of alleged facts and, most likely, ask for the lawsuit’s dismissal. At any point, the two sides could negotiate a settlement that ends the litigation. In the meantime, Judge Vernon Broderick will preside over Antetokounmpo v. Leaf Trading Cards.
As chronicled by Sportico, Antetokounmpo has aggressively used intellectual property law to enforce his NIL rights and prevent unauthorized uses. Last month, a federal magistrate judge ordered sellers of illicit goods on etsy.com, redbubble.com and other online platforms to pay his attorneys’ fees.
Antetokounmpo isn’t the first NBA player to wage IP litigation over his iconic brand. Michael Jordan spent eight years battling Chinese company Qiaodan Sports over its use of “Qiaodan”—which can be phonetically translated as “Jordan”—in its name and brand. The litigation spawned more than 80 lawsuits and counter-lawsuits in Chinese courts, culminating in a 2020 ruling by the Supreme People’s Court. The court ruled that Qiaodan had infringed on Jordan’s name, and it revoked Qiaodan’s trademark. However, the court neither ordered Qiaodan to disgorge profits nor barred it from continuing to use a logo that bears more than a passing resemblance to the famed Jumpman.