The Cleveland Guardians, a roller derby team that's been in operation since 2013, filed the lawsuit Wednesday in the U.S. District Court in Northern District of Ohio against the newly-named Cleveland Guardians baseball team, formerly known as the Cleveland Indians.
In July, the Indians announced it would be changing its 100-year-old name to the Cleveland Guardians at the conclusion of the 2021 baseball season after years of objections from Native American groups and others who called the previous name "racist" and "derogatory."
However, the lawsuit argues that the city's roller derby team held the rights to the name before the team announced its re-brand.
"Major League Baseball would never let someone name their lacrosse team the 'Chicago Cubs' if the team was in Chicago, or their soccer team the 'New York Yankees' if that team was in New York – nor should they," said Christopher Pardo, a partner at Hunton Andrews Kurth LLP and the lead attorney for the plaintiff. "The same laws that protect Major League Baseball from the brand confusion that would occur in those examples also operate in reverse to prevent what the Indians are trying to do here. By taking the name 'Cleveland Guardians' overnight, the Indians knowingly and willfully eviscerated the rights of the original owner of that name — the real Cleveland Guardians."
According to the lawsuit, the Cleveland Guardians roller derby team had already registered the public domain name ClevelandGuardians.com to host a public-facing website. The team also used the Instagram handle and Facebook name "clevelandguardians."
The team said in the lawsuit that it has "so-called 'common law' trademark rights based on a priority use in Northeast Ohio that dates back to early 2013 and 2014.
The roller derby team also applied for federal registrations for their Cleveland Guardians and its Winged Man logos. Both applications are pending.
The lawsuit claims the baseball club knew about the roller derby team before deciding to adopt the identical name.
"Indeed, it is inconceivable that an organization worth more than $1B and estimated to have annual revenues of $290M+ would not at least have performed a Google search for 'Cleveland Guardians; before settling on the name, and even a cursory search would have returned plaintiff's website (www.clevelandguardians.com) as the first 'hit,'" the lawsuit reads.
The lawsuit alleges that instead of approaching the roller derby team to resolve the matter, the baseball team filed a trademark application in April 2021 in the East African island nation of Mauritius.
The lawsuit claims the baseball club made another trademark filing, this time for its team logo, which the roller derby team says, "Looks remarkably like the Cleveland Guardians' 'Winged G" logo.'"
When the baseball club contacted the roller derby team to tell them that "Guardians" was one of the new team names they were considering, Gary Sweatt, the owner of the roller derby team, sent the baseball club pictures of their jerseys and other intellectual property. The lawsuit alleges Sweatt sent the items to show how they were using its team name.
Sweatt later reached out to the baseball club again and offered them the chance to buy the roller derby team's name and rights. However, he says the baseball club only "offered to pay a nominal amount."
The roller derby team alleges in the lawsuit that since the baseball club announced its name change, the team's website continues to crash from the number of visitors who think the site is associated with Major League Baseball.
"As a nonprofit organization that loves sports and the city of Cleveland, we are saddened that the Indians have forced us into having to protect the name we have used here for years," said Gary Sweatt, the owner of Guardians Roller Derby. "We know we are in the right, however, and just like our athletes do on the track, we will put everything into this effort at the courthouse."
The baseball club did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Read the entire lawsuit here.
This story was originally published by Kaylyn Hlavaty on Scripps station WEWS in Cleveland.