$13.6 Million in Counterfeit NFL Merchandise Seized Before Super Bowl
Federal agents announced Thursday the results of a five-month initiative to crack down on counterfeit NFL merchandise. With the aid of the NFL, U.S. law enforcement officials confiscated a record $13.6 million in unauthorized apparel, caps and other football souvenirs.
On Sept. 1, 2012, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents launched "Operation Red Zone," a nationwide effort to stop the sportswear counterfeiting trade. The operation, which will extend through Super Bowl Sunday this weekend, confiscated merchandise from stores and street vendors, shut down websites and intercepted shipments from China. In total, ICE agents shut down 313 websites and arrested 23 individuals. In addition, the NFL reports that it was able to shut down 4,200 websites selling unlicensed merchandise.
John Schmidt, a field supervisor for the Department of Homeland Security, told Today.com that the government's interest in stopping counterfeiters extends beyond simply enforcing the NFL's trademark. "The proceeds from the sale of these items support criminal enterprises like gangs, drug organizations, underground networks," he said.
A major issue for authorities is the speed at which counterfeiters are able to bring product, mostly produced in China, into the U.S. In the two weeks since the NFL conference championships, authorities seized more than 160,000 pieces of Super Bowl XLVII-related merchandise depicting both the Baltimore Ravens' and San Francisco 49ers' logos. ICE expects that number to increase over the next several days and expect to seize more, particularly in New Orleans where the game is being held this year.
Counterfeit sports gear has seen a significant rise in the past several years. In 2011, ICE's "Operation Interception" seized a then-record $3.56 million worth of fake Super Bowl product. The ease and speed of producing the merchandise overseas has made it attractive to some sellers. A second factor is the cost of official merchandise apparel: a licensed Nike jersey can run from $100 to $250 depending on the quality of the material and type of decoration. Some sites are offering knockoffs of these same jerseys for as little as $20.
The penalties for producing or reselling counterfeit merchandise are severe. The trademark owner or official licensee can collect the infringer's profits, as well as sue for damages and lost profits; using hte example above, the trademark holder would collect not only the $20 profit per shirt, but could sue for the addition $80 to $230 of lost revenue on each item. Alternately, in counterfeit cases, the victim may elect to recover statutory damages of $1,000,000 per trademark.
Both the NFL and ICE warn those purchasing, or selling, jerseys and other sports memorabilia to ensure that the merchandise is authentic and officially licensed. Garment quality is one way to determine whether an item is genuine. Official Nike jerseys will have seamless stitching on the inside, while the counterfeit items often have loose or uneven stitch, or will have stray threads and burst seams. The company Fanatics, which runs official e-commerce sites for the NFL and other sports organizations, has set up a website to help consumers and sellers determine if a jersey is authentic.
"The Super Bowl is one of the nation's most exciting events," said John Morton, director of ICE, in an interview with DesertNews.com. "Organized criminals are preying on that excitement, ripping consumers off with counterfeit merchandise and stealing from the American businesses who have worked hard to build a trusted brand."
Morton advised consumers and vendors alike to ensure that products are authentic, not only to protect themselves from fraud but also to protect the market. "The sale of counterfeit jerseys and other sports items undermines the legitimate economy, takes jobs away from Americans, and fuels crime overseas," he said.