November 12, 2014

Rebranding in College Sports: The University of Tennessee Volunteers

by Guest Blogger

We have written about rebranding in professional sports a number of times (here, here, here, and here). Now, we take on rebranding in college sports. Our first subject is near and dear to my heart: the University of Tennessee Volunteers.

Power T 2

As you may know, I am a proud graduate of the University of Tennessee and University of Tennessee College of Law. That means I am a "VFL" or Vol for Life (UT currently has seven pending trademark applications related to VFL).

Yesterday, the University posted a press release titled "One Tennessee: Branding Restructure." As a branding nerd, the title alone made me giddy. The contents of the release, they sent me over the moon. I'll explain (and, yes, I am burying the lede).

As the title of the release indicates, the University has decided to move toward a single nickname and logo for both campus and athletics. The decision was made following a several year study and multiple audits of the University's branding, which resulted in a consensus recommendation that the school consolidate its "logos and word marks in order to better branding consistency."

Let's unpack this (still burying).


In the past, men's sports teams were nicknamed the "Volunteers" while women's sports teams were nicknamed the "Lady Volunteers." According to the release, moving forward all sports teams will be nicknamed the "Tennessee Volunteers," save the women's basketball team, which will continue to use the "Lady Volunteers" name (and logo).


Here is the juicy stuff. In addition to consolidating nicknames, the University belabored its commitment to using its trademark "Power T" (U.S. Reg. No. 2,445,722) as the "primary mark for campus and athletics." Over the years, UT has used a number of marks and logos in addition to the Power T. Here is a smattering:

Ut Logos

The University's commitment to making the Power T "the official mark of the flagship institution" was first announced last month. What's interesting (we've almost found the lede) is that the press release emphasizes the importance of using the Power T to promote "both the University and athletics programs" because it "affords another opportunity for greater consistency and brand identity for the University of Tennessee as a whole." Chancellor Jimmy G. Cheek stated that "[b]rand consistency across the university is critical as we strive to become a top 25 public research university," and that "[i]t is important to take advantage of all the success across this great campus, both in academics and athletics."

Which leads me to why this press release is so exciting (The lede! The lede!). It seems to provide unprecedented access to all organizations at the University of Tennessee to use the Power T mark. Universities notoriously police their marks, sometimes in unexpected ways. Here is an example that hits close to home:

During my time at the University of Tennessee, I was a member of the University of Tennessee Rugby Football Club ("UTRFC"), a club sport supported and funded (in small part) by the University. I served as the club's President for multiple years and helped coach the team during my final two years of law school. During the past decade plus, UTRFC has been one of the most successful collegiate rugby teams in the country by any measure (the team is currently ranked 18th in the nation and has made into the top 5 on multiple occasions).

Due to the team's success, in 2010, it was invited to compete in a tournament that was nationally televised on NBC. Prior to the tournament, NBC contacted all of the universities that would have teams competing to ensure it could televise each university's marks. When Tennessee was contacted, the University refused to give NBC permission to use the Power T. The University also contacted UTRFC and requested that it remove the Power T from its shield. This was surprising considering that the tournament was the first nationally televised collegiate rugby event in years and provided an opportunity to cast the University in a positive light by highlighting the club's success on the rugby pitch.

If the goal of brand consistency is to emphasize "success across [UT's] campus" as Chancellor Cheek put it, then certainly the University's rugby club, as well as all other UT clubs and organizations, will now be able to use the Power T logo. Hopefully other universities will follow suit and begin to allow university sponsored clubs and organizations - including the ones where students and alumni provide the majority of the funding and few corporate dollars are likely to be earned - to use their alma mater's marks.

In any event, I cannot wait to see UTRFC proudly wearing the Power T following the University's announcement!

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