Think of it as the story of Goliath taking on David. With lawyers. And burritos. And it seems that Goliath wins.
The real drama is actually between the Big Ten Conference and Big Ten Burrito (which I’ll refer to as “BTB” from now on to avoid confusion). Last year, when the guys at BTB tried to trademark their company’s name, the Big Ten took notice. It contacted the owners and strongly suggested they change their moniker. Although it didn’t go down without a fight, BTB is now holding a contest to rename the company.
The persecution and subsequent name change has inspired fan reaction ranging from worry to bewilderment to outrage. Will the chimichangas still be as delicious? What did a quesadilla ever do to an athletic conference? And most importantly, why would a huge organization that handles millions of dollars worth of revenue and scholarships want to crush a teeny start-up founded by two young men with a dream?
Well, for one thing, because it can. By definition, it’s big, and big companies have lots of smart lawyers who get paid plenty of money. On the other hand, BTB has lots of eager law students who are willing to work pro bono. Even with our stellar law school, the Big Ten Conference knows it can litigiously squeeze BTB into submission with a practically unending supply of money. It can also do the same to every other unwitting company that uses the name. Just like all the monopolies that trample on and then eat up small businesses, the Big Ten can push around whomever it wants. If those galoots don’t want to share, well, they just don’t have to.
The Big Ten, however, isn’t just some name-hogging bully. In its defense, there is a practical consideration in edging out a popular small business. If, for whatever reason, BTB decides it wants to publicly and ardently support some unsavory cause – Nazism, Scientology or whatever – the conference would want to distance itself accordingly. Sure, no one is going to confuse a burrito joint with a giant athletic conference (one random, unsolicited e-mail I received pointed out, “the closest thing to a sports theme the Burrito place has is a signed photo of Bill Walton,”) but if BTB got big or crazy enough – and the conference’s wholesome all-American reputation was on the line – then the athletic organization did itself a huge favor by squashing any use of its namesake. Call it a pre-emptive strike.
Meanwhile, it’s completely understandable why BTB would give up the fight. As one of its owners pointed out, even if they win the suit, which is possible and even likely, they would still be down hundreds of thousands of dollars – with only an old name, pride and a devotion to principle to show for it. That might be enough for some people, but maybe not for a two-year old start-up.
Ironically, it was probably BTB’s success and subsequent attempt to protect its name through trademark that jumpstarted the Big Ten’s harassment. There are dozens of business that use “Big Ten” in their names, yet the conference either doesn’t know or care about them until they seek governmental legitimacy and protection.
Then again, there is always the silver lining. When BTB decides to continue its campus burrito domination, it won’t be constrained by the “Big Ten” moniker. “Big Ten Burrito” only resonates well in 11 cities, and “ACC Burrito” just doesn’t roll off the tongue like it should. BTB can now pursue a more creative designation. How’s “BTB” for creative, or maybe the absolutely original “Blimpy Burrito.” Whatever they choose, a name change so early in the game isn’t a death certificate – a logo won’t be devastating, and the business isn’t exactly established when compared to, say, Wal-Mart.
And maybe the best part of it all is that the customers don’t really lose. Sentimentality aside, the burritos themselves – which are temporarily $1 cheaper thanks to the contest – will presumably taste the same, and the earliest “Big Ten Burrito” T-shirts will one day become vintage. And, as some of BTB’s earliest fans, we will always be able to tell our kids the full tale of Big Ten Burrito – its rise, fall and eventual resurrection beneath Goliath’s feet.
Go can be reached at email@example.com.