From MJ's Jumpman to DJ's Danny Dimes: Inside sports' weirdest, most lucrative underworld

From Jumpman to "Let's get ready to rumble!" to ... #DannyDimes, the battle of over athlete trademarks often descends into the absurd, pitting athletes against fans, fans against teams and teams against corporations -- all in a furious rush to cash in. Christian Petersen/Getty Images

LAST FALL, A quirky mini-drama began to emerge out of the New York Giants' locker room. Rookie quarterback Daniel Jones was off to an impressive start as Eli Manning's replacement, and New York, a city that would never dream of insta-hyperventilating over the prospects of a young star athlete, had an obvious immortal Hall of Famer worthy of a snappy nickname. So when Jones followed up a stunning fourth-quarter comeback against the Bucs in Week 3 with a solid W over Washington the next week, #DannyDimes trended on Twitter and the public quickly nodded its collective head in approval. A moniker was born.

A Pennsylvania man, John Messina, is believed to have invented the nickname. He tweeted out a string of potential nicknames for Jones on April 26 of last year, when the Giants picked Jones No. 6 in the 2019 draft (other options: Danny Darts, Danny Dime Package, Drop It In Danny). Eight days later, on May 4, the Giants' official Twitter account tweeted from minicamp, "Daniel Jones out here dropping dimes," and the groundwork had been laid.

In high school, Jones had been called "Swag." At Duke, coaches and teammates labeled him "The Future." And Giants teammates simply called him -- then and now -- "DJ." But "Danny Dimes" had won the popular vote with fans.

Jones' reaction? A big ol' eh. "I don't know," he told ESPN's Jordan Raanan in late September last year. "It's all right, I guess. There could be worse nicknames."

And yet ... three weeks later, Jones' management team applied for a "Danny Dimes" trademark.

Turns out, more than 20 companies had been selling unlicensed Daniel Jones merch going all the way back to April, and two other "Danny Dimes" trademarks had already been filed by excited Giants fans in mid-September. The other two applications were eventually abandoned, and Jones now owns his not-quite-beloved nickname. So if you have an interest in putting Danny Dimes on T-shirts, jerseys, belts, rainwear, shovel sets, bubble-making wands or 60 other potential usages listed in the trademark application, that ship has already sailed to East Rutherford, New Jersey.

This six-month, multi-application, multiparty journey into who owns Danny Dimes, of all things, is a mere window into the wild, complicated, ridiculously lucrative underworld of sports trademarks -- essentially defined as anything you can slap on a T-shirt or mug. In the past decade alone in the U.S., the number of trademarks filed has increased by an absurd 84%, from 269,000 applications in 2009 to 494,000 in 2019. Athletes represent only a small fraction of that number, of course, but they are often the highest-profile billboards for protecting personal brands. "Athletes are more aware than ever of their personal brand and the value they bring," says trademark attorney Josh Gerben, whose firm, Gerben Law, maintains a comprehensive sports trademark database online. "So the public certainly has noticed these big-name sports people trademarking things."

Some trademarks have become famous in their own right -- like the trademark heard round the world, Pat Riley's "three-peat," or Lance Armstrong's "Livestrong" or Michael Buffer's legendary "Let's get ready to rumble!" Buffer's catchphrase has reportedly brought in up to $400 million through merchandise, licensing and usage in the past quarter-century. "It's almost impossible to verify the value of individual trademarks unless you saw all of the numbers related to merchandise, licensing, etc.," Gerben says. "But look at all the use 'Let's get ready to rumble' has had for almost 30 years -- it's entirely possible that that figure is correct."

(Dear reader: Before you go rushing off to trademark the next great quote or nickname, beware: It's actually a silly business decision. Trademark applications cost $275 up front if you file yourself (closer to $1,000 if you use an attorney), and to get approved, applicants must actually show products featuring that trademark, as well as steady business. So if you want in on the Danny Dimes business, you need to actually make and sell products. And if challenged by Daniel Jones himself, government trademark examiners tend to make logical decisions -- as in, if Danny Dimes wants Danny Dimes, Danny Dimes is probably going to win in court.)

Just this year alone, the WNBA put in an application for "Wubble," signifying the WNBA's bubble down in Bradenton, Florida; the NCAA is trying to obtain "Battle in the bubble" and the Clippers are waiting for approval on "Win the wait." (Which, uh, perhaps has a different meaning now.) Heat star Jimmy Butler has applied for three trademarks for his bubble-coffee business, and Lou Williams is trying to capitalize on his ... excursion from the bubble to a gentleman's club to "get chicken wings" with an application to own "Lemon Pepper Lou." Within three weeks of signing with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Tom Brady had applied for "Tompa Bay," "Tampa Brady" and "TB x TB." Those filings came about a year after his management firm applied for "Tom Terrific," causing outrage and at least one protest from angry Tom Seaver fans in New York (Brady eventually apologized and said he didn't like the nickname, and the application was rejected). Third-year QB Lamar Jackson, for his part, owns 12 trademarks already, including "Not bad for a running back!" and "You're going to get a bowl out of me, believe that!" Zion Williamson recently scooped up "Zion" and "Let's dance" -- his quote on draft night when the New Orleans Pelicans selected him with the No. 1 pick. A few weeks after the draft, Williamson's management team found out his actual team had also applied for "Let's dance" (the Pelicans eventually dropped their claim).

But perhaps nothing is as complex, fascinating and likely to end up in a courtroom as trademarks surrounding iconic visuals. We found 10 images that are so legendary, so associated with individual athletes, that trademarks have been granted of the silhouette of those images -- including perhaps the most famous logo in sports history.

Jumpman takes off

Surprise: Michael Jordan doesn't actually dunk in real life like he does in Jumpman. That image is from a Life Magazine photo shoot in the run-up to the 1984 Olympics and was a staged re-creation of a ballet move known as a grand jeté. That picture inspired Nike to sketch out a polished-up offshoot version of the Life photo and use it to market a sneaker it called Air Jordan. Life and the photographer who captured the image disputed the use of the photo, but Nike eventually prevailed in a bitter battle over one of the most lucrative images ever: Jumpman sneakers have generated somewhere north of $5 billion in revenue.


Nobody spikes a football quite like Rob Gronkowski, and in 2016, his LLC, Gronk Nation, submitted an application for an outline of a football player mid-touchdown celebration. But the original drawing looked just a hair too much like Jumpman, so Nike opposed the trademark (take a look for yourself here) and Gronk relented. Gronk resubmitted a new silhouette, this time with a football helmet on his head and several barely noticeable tweaks to his upper body to emphasize that he has a football torso. Official government approval is still pending, but Nike has dropped its opposition to the new mark.

The Kawhi klaw

Have we established yet that Nike is good at trademarking? Kawhi Leonard took exception to his own shoe company's use of the outline of his hand, which he says he designed for himself as a college player at San Diego State and shared with the company when he was still with Nike (he left for New Balance in 2018). Leonard, in 2019, challenged Nike's production of Klaw merchandise and eventually settled with Nike -- the company retains possession of what Leonard had argued was his own original sketch that Nike turned into a popular logo. One key piece of evidence in Nike's favor: quotes from Kawhi himself in an oral history of the logo, in which he credited Nike for perfecting his rough idea.

The Mickelson leap

After Phil Mickelson broke through at the 2004 Masters to win his first major title, he leapt into the air, arms outstretched and legs splayed outward like open scissors. ("Leapt" might be overstating it; it was roughly a 3-inch vertical leap.) Still, when he went looking for a logo a few years ago for his company, Mickelson Inc., he had a pretty easy pick for the perfect silhouette image. And if you're keeping track of Mickelson trademarks, it's worth noting that Lefty recently submitted an application for "Hit Bombs" too, after his go-to social media quote went viral.

Kaepernick's head

Colin Kaepernick has filed for 13 trademarks over the past four years, including his name, the phrases "I'm with Kap" and "Kaepernicking," and even an outline of his head. That last trademark is particularly expansive, protecting against use of his silhouetted noggin for sale of more than 100 items, ranging from pillowcases and ornamental novelty buttons to fidget spinners and flip-flops. And before you even ask, yes, that includes selling vegan mayonnaise with Colin Kaepernick's head on the jar. Seriously, that's on their list of 13 food products.

Wilma's sprint

Good luck finding a more remarkable sports story than the life of Wilma Rudolph. After being born prematurely, weighing only 4.5 pounds, Rudolph contracted pneumonia, polio and scarlet fever before she turned 12. But she battled through it all and ended up as one of the greatest athletes of all time, winning three gold medals as a sprinter at the 1960 Olympics. She returned home and became one of the country's most important civil rights advocates. Her proudest achievement, according to her? The Wilma Rudolph Foundation, which helps educate and train young athletes and features a silhouette -- trademarked in 2012 -- of her leaning across the finish line, baton in hand.

That one epic Shaq dunk

Plenty of NBA centers got caught underneath one of Shaq's rim-rattling dunks, captured so explosively -- but anonymously -- in one of his multiple trademarks. This one has him hanging on the rim, knees pulled high underneath a teamless blank uniform. It's straight out of one of his Icy Hot ad's wardrobe closets. This approved trademark applies specifically to "clothing, namely men's suits, tuxedos, sport coats, pants, shirts, sweaters, coats, jackets, neckwear, socks and belts." Sign us up for a Shaq dunk tux, ASAP.

Novak's backhand

If Jumpman and Gronk's end zone spike had a tennis-playing logo baby, it'd be Novak Djokovic's sleek backhand logo. Djokovic also has an incredibly detailed trademark protecting his full name (seriously, what kind of market is there for Novak Djokovic nonalcoholic honey-based beverages?). But his backhand image application, which is still pending final approval, sticks to a comprehensive array of apparel, including everything from T-shirts and Bermuda shorts to bathrobes and bonnets.

Seeing red

Let's have Canelo Alvarez describe his own trademark, as stated in his application: "The mark consists of a red silhouette of a man wearing boxing gloves and raising his right arm." That pretty much nails this clothing trademark for the superstar boxer. One distinguishing characteristic of Alvarez's submission is how broad it is -- it lists 12 apparel items, with such broad descriptions as "athletic pants," "hats" and "tops."

Safety bolt

Call it by whatever name you'd like -- the Lightning Bolt, or simply Bolting -- but don't bother slapping Usain Bolt's legendary 2008 Olympics celebration pose on a hat or shirt anytime soon. Bolt applied for an outline of the pose in 2011, and you can find shirts and duffel bags with the gesture for sale online. The trademark lists 50-plus items that are protected, with a bucket listing for "sporting apparatus" that includes pingpong tables and nets with Bolt on them. But our personal favorite has to be the logo of the fastest human being ever ... plastered on a walking stick.