Pat Riley’s Other Master Plan: Trademarking ‘Three-Peat’

The Wall Street Journal

Heat President’s Long-Ago Move Could Pay Off If Miami Triumphs Over Spurs


Updated June 4, 2014

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With the NBA finals kicking off Thursday night, who stands to gain in a Miami Heat ‘three-peat’? WSJ sports editor Geoff Foster joins the News Hub with details. Photo: Getty Images.

If the Miami Heat prevail over the San Antonio Spurs for their third straight NBA title, it would represent yet another triumph for Pat Riley, the legendary, slick-haired team president. It would give him 10 championship rings, one for each finger.

It also would give Riley the rights to royalties from every hat, shirt and jacket sold containing the phrase “three-peat.” Plus: mugs, tankards, key chains, bumper stickers, paper pennants, paperweights, bed linens, bed pads, bed spreads and, according to Riley’s latest trademark filing, “three-peat” smartphone covers.

Pat Riley in 2008. NBAE/Getty Images NBAE/Getty Images

On Nov. 7, 1988, when he was coming off back-to-back titles as coach of the Los Angeles Lakers, Riley quietly filed a trademark application for “three-peat,” a phrase that had yet to enter the American sports lexicon. But the Lakers failed to earn the distinction, losing in the 1989 NBA Finals to the Detroit Pistons.

Riley gained notoriety for the phrase years later, as three consecutive titles by the Chicago Bulls (twice) and the Lakers (long after he left) enabled him to profit from dynasties he had nothing to do with. But only now, with Miami on the brink of its third consecutive title, would Riley be cashing in on a three-peat of his own design.

“Pat is very aware of history and where his place is,” said former Lakers center Mychal Thompson, who played under Riley from 1987 to 1990. “The financial reward is just icing on the cake. If the team can do it, and you get to cash in on the achievement, that’s the American way.”

It isn’t clear how widely Riley plans to license the phrase if the Heat win the Finals, which begin Thursday in San Antonio. A Heat spokesman declined to comment. But an executive at one company that has previously been licensed to sell three-peat gear said Riley’s royalty rate is somewhere between 5% and 10% of total sales.

The Heat’s drive toward a third straight title is in many ways a testament to what Riley, 69, has built in South Florida. Already a Hall of Fame coach, he has burnished his résumé as an executive by landing LeBron James and Chris Bosh in 2010 and turning Miami into a juggernaut. His public presence has also lessened lately.

But one of the quirkier aspects of Riley’s legacy is having been at the forefront of a trend that has become widespread in sports: turning catchphrases into potentially profitable trademarks.

In 1993, a few months after the Bulls’ third straight title turned “three-peat” into a lucrative trademark, boxing ring announcer Michael Buffer trademarked his signature line “Let’s get ready to rumble!” It has since generated over $400 million in licensing revenue, according to Bruce Buffer, the announcer’s half brother and business manager.

“When I decided to trademark the rumble phrase, part of my inspiration was ‘three-peat’ and the Riley story,” Bruce Buffer said. “It just solidified that you can do this.”

That realization has spawned an array of trademarks filed by athletes and coaches, some of which are more comical than profitable.

In 2011, New Orleans forward Anthony Davis trademarked “Fear the Brow,” a reference to his unibrow. In 2012, Washington Nationals outfielder Bryce Harper trademarked “That’s a clown question, bro,” his response to a reporter’s inquiry as to whether he intended to indulge in a “celebratory Canadian beer” after a win in Toronto.

“The thing about athletes is when they see something that someone else has done, they want it, too,” said Chicago attorney Scott Andresen, who specializes in sports and trademark law. “If you’ve got a catchphrase that might make you some money, it’s foolish not to do it.”

What makes “three-peat” unique is that it applies to any team in any sport that wins three consecutive titles. And according to his former players, it wasn’t even Riley’s catchphrase.

Former Lakers guard Byron Scott has long been credited with inventing the term. But a recently released book on the 1980s Lakers, “Showtime,” credits teammate Wes Matthews.

In an interview last week, Matthews said he came up with the phrase while bantering with Scott during the celebration of the Lakers’ repeat title in 1988. “Byron said a word that didn’t make sense and I said, ‘Hey, why not ‘three-peat?’” Matthews said. “And it took off from there.”

Scott’s agent, Emanuel Hudson, maintains that it was Scott who first uttered the term. “He knows he’s the one who originated it,” Hudson said.

They agree on this much: Riley was the only one who thought to trademark it. And he has continued to do so through his company, Riles and Co.

On Sept. 10, 2010, two months after James famously declared he was “taking my talents to South Beach,” Riley’s attorney filed an additional trademark application to expand the array of merchandise covered, according to U.S. Patent and Trademark Office records. He has made several similar filings in recent weeks, which were first reported by ESPN.

That hasn’t stopped others from seeking royalties of their own. Rohit Walia, a 37-year-old real-estate agent and actor in Los Angeles, trademarked “three-Heat” in late 2010. He recently offered it to attorneys for Riley and James. “If they wanted to buy it or offer me Heat season tickets, I would sell it to them,” he said.

Two weeks ago, Scott asked his agent if there was any way he could start to cash in on the phrase he claims to have invented. “He asked me whether we could trademark it,” Hudson said. “My opinion is, it’s kind of late for that.”