Payers v Players

The trade mark and pay disputes of Australian Netball

What do the names Thunderbirds, Swifts, Firebirds and Fever all have in common? They are the names of some of the Australian Super Netball teams. What about the Diamonds? That’s the nickname of the Australian national netball team – the Australian Diamonds – which represents Australia in international netball tournaments.

The game of netball itself has a long history. Basketball was invented back in 1891 but was considered not suitable for women.  In Australia, the game of netball was first played in 1897. The history of the Australian Diamonds can be traced back to 1939 when the first Australian Diamonds team was selected to take on the New Zealand national team at the world’s first international netball test match. However, due to World War II intervening, the first international game between the two countries took place in 1948 with Australia winning the series. After winning 12 out of 16 World Cups and 5 out of 7 Gold Medals at the Commonwealth Games, and multiple other international tests, the Australian Diamonds are currently at the top of the International Netball Federation (INF) World Rankings.

With such a long history comes a substantial reputation and some valuable intellectual property and associated rights. These rights reside not just in the game itself but also in the teams, the associations behind the teams and the players themselves. Let’s break it down.

Netball Australia Limited (“Netball Australia”) is the main governing body for, well, netball in Australia. Netball Australia owns a number of Australian registered trade marks, the first having been filed in 1993 for in respect of sports wear and in respect of organizing sporting competitions, entertainment, training and related activities. Netball Australia also owns the trade mark for AUSTRALIAN DIAMONDS, filed in July 2008, for a range of goods and services such as clothing, games, sport equipment, advertising, education and sporting and cultural activities.

In 2018, Netball Australia successfully obtained registration of (“Diamonds Logo”) which is on the uniforms of the team members of the Australian Diamonds. In 2020, Netball Australia announced that it had entered into an agreement with Origin Energy under which Origin Energy became the new naming rights partner of the Australian Diamonds. So, now, under the Diamonds Logo is the Origin Energy logo, and the word “Origin” (“Origin Logo”). The nickname, ‘diamonds’, also appears under the Origin name. Netball Australia obtained trade mark registration for DIAMONDS in 2019.

Between the Diamonds Logo, the Origin Logo and the ‘diamonds’ nickname on the teams’ uniform, it’s all getting very busy. However, in the world of sponsorships or “partners” there is always room for more. In July 2023, the Australian Diamonds revealed their new uniform for the Netball World Cup. Netball Australia had secured partnerships with New Balance and Flight Centre and, as a result, the New Balance logo and FLIGHT CENTRE trade mark was added to the teams’ uniform. The uniform also featured a panel at the bottom of the dresses which included artwork by a First Nations’ artist, Yorta Yorta woman Alkina Edwards.

Add to this, the intellectual property associated with the images, voices, likenesses, names and signatures of our elite netball players themselves – relied on by Netball Australia to attract supporters to the game and drive sponsorships – and you can see the immense scope and value of intellectual property within professional sports.

This became readily apparent in 2023, when a pay dispute between the Australian Netballers Players Association (“ANPA”) and Netball Australia highlighted the importance of the players to Netball Australia.  ANPA’s mission is to promote the interests and protect the welfare of Australia’s elite netballers.

In 2023, ANPA went in to bat (sorry about the mixed sports metaphors) for the netball players in negotiating better pay from Netball Australia, including for our elite netball players to receive a share of the sponsorship revenue generated by Netball Australia from its use of their intellectual property rights.  At a time when the negotiations were not going the way of the players, the players sought to transfer their intellectual property rights to the ANPA.  After all, if Netball Australia was stopped from using the players’ names, voices, trade marks, images and the like, how could it promote the game and how would the major sponsors react?

According to reports, the players went nine weeks without pay but, finally, in December 2023, Netball Australia and ANPA were ready to sign a collective player agreement.  Under the agreement, the players’ base salary payment as well as payment for marketing related deals was set to increase. Importantly, the value of players’ intellectual property was also acknowledged and the use of the players’ intellectual property will attract a payment to the player in accordance with a new commercial model.

The importance of trade marks in netball is clear. Their power as an advertising tool on team uniforms cannot be underestimated. However, after the pay dispute of 2023, it won’t be surprising if individual players look more closely at what registrable intellectual property rights they can obtain and enforce as well.



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