Are We No Longer “The 12th Man”?


12th Man

By Joe Davison

If you have watched a Seahawks football game, chances are you have heard the phrase “12th Man” during broadcast.  This phrase is typically used to describe the impact of the home fans—each team has eleven players on the field and the fans are thought to fill the role of the 12th man to give the home team advantage.  Although it is used by many football teams, the saying is most commonly associated with the Seattle Seahawks and Texas A&M University’s football team.

The use of the “12th Man” phrase by both the Seahawks and Texas A&M goes back decades.  In 1984, the Seahawks retired the number 12 in honor of its famously dedicated fans. In 2003, the Seahawks installed a flagpole in the south end zone of CenturyLink Field, and began a tradition of raising a flag with the number 12 on it to honor their fans.  12th Man flags have been seen all over Seattle during the playoffs, including atop the Space Needle, one of Seattle’s most iconic landmarks.  In 2014, aerospace company Boeing painted a Boeing 747-8 freighter airplane in Seahawks colors with the number 12 on the tail. The freighter was flown over eastern Washington in a flight path outlining the number 12.  The Seahawks now sells jerseys with the number 12 and a nameplate that says “Fan.”  Texas A&M traces its usage back to 1922, when the team grabbed E. King Gill from amongst the fans and suited him up to play for the team.  Though he never actually played, the phrase became an enduring symbol of the school’s football fans.

Texas A&M University trademarked the “12th Man” phrase in 1990.  Shortly thereafter, it began sending cease and desist letters to teams who were using the phrase without permission. Most teams complied, but in 2005 when the Seahawks began gaining national attention, the team chose not to.  Litigation quickly followed.

The next year, Texas A&M and the Seahawks settled the lawsuit over the Seahawks’ use of the phrase “12th Man.”  The settlement included a license agreement for an initial lump sum payment of $100,000, followed by $5,000 payments for the next five years, with another five-year option. As part of the agreement, the Seahawks agreed to acknowledge Texas A&M’s ownership of the phrase’s trademark (thus preventing the Seahawks from making a validity challenge to the trademark in the future), and to include a statement in every broadcast notifying the viewers of that ownership. And though the agreement allowed the Seahawks to use the phrase in promotional videos and broadcasts, it prohibits the team from using it for merchandise sales (ever notice that the 12th Man Flag is just the number 12?).  The license agreement expires this year.

In light of the expiring “12th Man” license, the Seahawks have filed for around two-dozen trademarks on similar phrases, including “We are 12,” “Go Hawks,” “Boom,” and “The 12s.”  The team has even gone so far as filing a trademark application for the number “12.”  The Seahawks have successfully acquired at least eleven of the trademarks, including “Legion of Boom” and “Spirit of 12.”  It would appear that the Seahawks are shifting their branding in the chance that ongoing negotiations with Texas A&M prove to be unsuccessful.

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