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Garber comments show league, PNW fans heading for Cascadia Cup impasse

Jan 18, 2013, 2:10 PM EDT

MLS Sounders Timbers Soccer

Major League Soccer may be trying to diffuse the “Cascadia Cup” controversy, but after Thursday comments from Don Garber affirmed the league’s intention to trademark the term, supporters groups in the Pacific Northwest are digging in. While MLS may see trademarking as necessary to protect what’s becoming a league microbrand, fans of the Sounders, Timbers, and Whitecaps see it as MLS’s attempt to usurp a fan-created entity.

The resulting face-off is consuming fans in the Pacific Northwest, with Major League Soccer often being portrayed as a greedy, money-grubbing overlord. It’s an unfair depiction, but it’s also understandable given the passion fans have for something they’ve created. One Portland fan site author summoned Orwellian cynicism in depicting an over-marketed Cup future (while ironically tagging the post “Cascadian Exceptionalism”). A Seattle fan blog’s more even-handed coverage acknowledged MLS’s latest comments are “far short of what supporters were hoping to hear.” One Vancouver blog described fan reaction as “vitriolic”. (Those SBNation blogs are seriously great fan sites.)

Clearly, passions are high. Commissioner Garber addressed the situation yesterday in Indianapolis, admitting the league has “not done a good enough job communicating with the fans in the Pacific Northwest”:

“The goal is to have a trademark that’s managed, so that we – the league that has its teams playing in the Cascadia Cup – can ensure that that trademark is managed properly. That it’s not exploited by people that shouldn’t be exploiting it. That it’s not offered to those that might not have the right to be associated with Major League Soccer.”

Garber went on to explain why he feels Major League Soccer, not the fan groups, should dot he managing:

“[MLS can] ensure that it’s controlled. Prospective fan groups, in theory, could offer that trademark to a competitive sponsor … They can take that trademark and sell it to a promoter. They can produce merchandise that’s not merchandise that we would want associated with our teams or with our league. There are so many things that go into intellectual property management.”

It’s a compelling point, but the fact remains: The supporters in the northwest created the trophy. Major League Soccer may be better equipped to manage the brand, but it’s not theirs. With the recent creation of the Cascadia Cup Council — an umbrella organization that’s also seeking the U.S. and Canadian trademarks — fans finally have a singular entity that can make their ownership claim.

But as Garber implied, that’s not going to work. At least, not for Major League Soccer. The Cascadia Cup may have been created by supporters, but in the league’s view, the Cup has transcended its first life as a fan trophy. Major League Soccer is marketing it, it’s becoming a part of league initiatives like Rivalry Week, and whether the supporters admit it or not, much of the Cascadia Cup’s current (and future) prestige is tied to the league’s promotion of the trophy.

Fans may not want to hear it, and they certainly don’t want this Salazar-esque MLS monster they’ve concocted telling them what to do with their hardware, but without Major League Soccer signing off on it, the Cascadia Cup won’t mean much. If they don’t get the rights, Major League Soccer could create a replacement trophy, start promoting it, and slowly ween its three franchises away from any implicit promotion of something the league can’t control.

You would think there has to be a middle ground, but where it is? For fans, it’s untenable for the league to own something supporters created. But for Major League Soccer, it’s unacceptable for another entity to make money off their success of their franchises (or control the right to do so).

In a way, both sides are right, but with Major League Soccer scheduled to have a conference call next week with Council representatives, there doesn’t seem any room for compromise. If MLS doesn’t win the battle for the trademarks, we might see the quick diminution of the Cascadia Cup in Major League Soccer.

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