As love for the Oklahoma City Thunder basketball team grows, so does the desire for fans to wear their heart on their sleeve.
The market for Thunder gear has exploded and businesses are jumping on the big-league-city bandwagon for a piece of the retail action.
The celebrity status and recognizable features of the team’s key players such as Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and James Harden are perfect for T-shirt merchandising. But that also presents a legal tightrope some businesses are willing to walk.
Self-proclaimed Thunder basketball fans, the owners of the local screen printing business Tree & Leaf Clothing in northwest Oklahoma City began making a line of Thunder parody shirts in 2009. Popular designs include the Durantula, depicting the Thunder star as a spider dunking a basketball, and a white T-shirt that says “Thunder U” with a lightning bolt through it.
Co-owner Dustin Gilpin says their designs neither feature a Thunder logo nor a player’s full name because they don’t want to infringe on copyrights or trademarks.
“Since we’re fans, we don’t want to do anything that would directly offend the team we’re cheering for,” he said.
The company, he said, has a working relationship with the Thunder. When the team has, at times, requested Tree & Leaf discontinue a certain design, they have complied.
The NBA says it has licensing agreements with its players and has copyrighted the team logo. But team colors, mascots and jersey numbers can be a gray area and an NBA spokeswoman declined to comment on whether those items were trademarked.
Oklahoma City University law professor Deborah Tussey said colors can be trademarked if they are sufficiently distinctive and people associate the color with a particular product — for example, the red used by Coca-Cola.
Players’ names and their likenesses are protected by the state’s publicity rights statute, she said. But enforcing the statute takes a lawsuit and, in the case of a team and its fan base, it may not be an issue.
“The relationship with fans is important, so a player might not want to enforce against his fans.”
The NBA’s licensing process has another Oklahoma City company treading carefully. USA Screen Printing & Embroidery Co. added Thunder apparel to the lineup of University of Oklahoma and Oklahoma State University items in its retail shop, House of Bedlam at 3100 S Meridian. But unlike the collegiate shirts, the company has not secured rights to print licensed Thunder apparel, so it sells items printed elsewhere, said general manager Lateria Allen.
“We are trying to establish a relationship with the NBA to print for the Thunder,” Allen said. “We want it to be official. We want it to be licensed.”
Since 1999, the company has had a deal with the Collegiate Licensing Company to print OU and OSU apparel. The approval process took six months to a year, Allen said.
USA Screen Printing is able to print some promotional items for the Thunder but mostly owners purchase licensed gear. However, printing in-house is its forte — and the company’s ultimate goal for Thunder gear.
This month, USA Screen Printing begins construction on a House of Bedlam location in Bricktown, steps away from the Chesapeake Energy Arena, where the Thunder plays.
The store is expected to open in October.
A recent informal survey found that some fans’ argument that licensed apparel is more expensive doesn’t always hold true. For example, some of the most popular items at the OKC Thunder team store inside the Chesapeake Energy Arena are shirts priced at $12 apiece.
From basic T-shirts and jerseys to unique items like a Thunder toaster and a plush Rumble the Bison children’s backpack, the shop has the largest selection of Thunder gear in the metro — all licensed and some of it exclusive, said Alan Fey, president of Gameday Merchandising, which operates the store and retail outlets for several other professional sports teams. The hat wall features 30 to 50 styles of caps and in the women’s section, fans find shirts and jerseys in Thunder blue as well as white and pink.
The store has an exterior entrance facing S Robinson Avenue and is accessible every day, so shoppers don’t have to wait until a game. Gameday Merchandising expanded the retail outlet a little over a year ago to more than 2,000 square feet, dedicating its previous space to children’s Thunder gear and customizing jerseys.
“In this market, there’s a huge thirst or hunger for Thunder product,” he said.