What You May Not Know About the "12th Man"

1. The "12th Man" has different meanings in different sports.

In American football where most leagues allow eleven players on the field at a time, the "twelfth man" refers to the fans within the stadium and the implication of their profound impact on the game. Cricket, on the other hand, uses the term to refer to the first substitute player on the roster who fills in for an injured player or gets cut just before the final game roster is selected.

2. According to records, a University of Minnesota magazine was first to use the term.

Like so many traditions, the "12th man" originated in college football. Its first recorded use was in 1900 referring to "the mysterious use of the twelfth man on the team, the rooter."

3. Someone owns the term, and it is NOT the Seattle Seahawks.

You may doubt that someone can own such a widely used term, but one entity in particular began using the term almost a century ago and gave it the purpose we recognize today. By "own," I mean that the term is a federally registered trademark with incontestable status, and the owner probably is not who you think it is, unless you have been to College Station. Since December 26, 1989, Texas A&M University has laid claim to the "12th man" as a trademark, as well as a few variations of the phrase, with the USPTO issuing the trademark registration the following September. "The Home of the 12th Man" is emblazoned on the stadium, and the university thinks of its entire school as the 12th Man supporting the football program.

Texas A&M's use dates back to 1922 when the university was called The Agricultural and Mechanical College of Texas. Besides Texas A&M and Minnesota, other teams that have used the term "in commerce" include Baylor University, Dartmouth College, the University of Iowa, the Green Bay Packers, the Buffalo Bills, the Denver Broncos, the Miami Dolphins, the Washington Redskins, the Indianapolis Colts, the Chicago Bears, and the Seattle Seahawks. Nearly all of these teams have stopped using the mark upon receiving cease and desist letters from Texas A&M.

4. The Seattle Seahawks' current use of the mark IS legal, though.

Unlike the other teams that used the phrase, Seattle did not stop using the "12th Man" mark in commerce upon receiving those cease and desist letters. They were stubborn, and Texas A&M sued the franchise in 2006 for trademark infringement. The case ultimately settled, resulting in a licensing deal with many monetary and market-defining use terms that the teams renewed in 2011 for an additional five years: the Seahawks paid an initial $100,000 licensing fee and continue to pay $5,000 per year during the term of the contract; Seattle must include a statement on Seahawks broadcasts that the "12th Man" is a trademark of Texas A&M University; the Seahawks can only use the term on promotional materials sold in a limited geographic region that may associate the phrase with the Seahawks - Alaska, Hawaii, Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Utah, and Montana - to limit consumer confusion and keep Seattle's use far away from the Aggies region; and the Seahawks cannot sell merchandise that says "12th Man." Notably, one area that the current licensing deal does not control is social media use, but it is something that legal teams will definitely negotiate when Seattle's license expires in 2016.

5. Despite being merely a licensee, Seattle's treatment of the 12th Man is pretty obnoxious.

Seattle's 12th Man jersey is in the top ten highest-selling jerseys at the NFL Pro Shop, the team retired the #12 jersey in honor of its fans decades before the licensing deal when the franchise was only eight years old and before it retired any player jersey, and the team gave President Obama the 12th Man banner instead of the traditional team jersey after the Seahawks won the Super Bowl in 2014.

6. Texas A&M went as far as suing a cancer patient using the "12th Man" mark to protect the value of its incontestable federally registered trademark.

A Bills fan group used the domain name 12thManThunder.com, but the group changed its name to the Bills Fan Thunder after the university filed suit in July. One of the group's founders is Charles "Chuckie" Sonntag, a double amputee cancer survivor. Per federal law, the university sent the group cease and desist letters to fulfill its duty to defend its registered mark, but it was to no avail partially because the university did not address the letters directly to Sonntag. The parties were able to reach a settlement shortly thereafter and joined the club of parties who love the phrase, infringe upon the university's mark, and settled in some fashion.

A trademark owner is not required to police against every single infringing use. What makes a trademark "generic" (i.e., lose federal protection because the mark's use is so widespread that it no longer has the special meaning to distinguish the owner's good from another) is a pattern of non-enforcement. So, while this website was created simply by a licensee's fan group, Texas A&M has the duty to make sure people still know that it owns the mark and that others only have the right to use the mark because they pay the university a lot of money to do so. My guess is that since this website had potential to do a large amount of damage to Texas A&M's mark because 12thManThunder.com had worldwide reach that was intended for an extended period of time (as opposed to, say, a one-time use of the phrase for a small watch party), the university chose to police against this use.

7. None of the teams who refer to their fans as the "12th Man" holds the Guinness World Record for crowd noise.

On December 2, 2013, the 12th Man constituting 68,387 fans earned the honor cheering for the Seahawks in a 34-7 blowout against the New Orleans Saints at 137.6 dbA. Unfortunately, Seattle's 12th Man may not be all it cracks itself up to be because the Kansas City Chiefs fans annihilated the "Loudest crowd roar at a sports stadium" title on September 29, 2014 and reached 142.2 dbA at Arrowhead Stadium 14:52 into the 41-14 win over the New England Patriots.

[Thumbnail Image Source: Tom Fox / The Dallas Morning News, http://collegesportsblog.dallasnews.com/files/2014/07/NS_20HUSKERSAGGIES26_168777012-620x413.jpg]