Don't play games with the Steelers ... logo.
That was the clear message in federal court Wednesday, when the team and the National Football League took aim at a local manufacturer of clothing featuring images that do a lot more than hint at the team's images and players.
A hearing before U.S. District Judge Terrence F. McVerry dealt with the complaints of the team and league that Turtle Creek Sportswear is in contempt of court for violating a consent judgment it entered into in 2005. The company pledged then not to sell clothing that the public could confuse for official Steelers gear.
The hearing is also part of a long-running effort by the league to protect team names and logos -- and even catchphrases -- from commercial use by outside parties. The NFL has gone to federal court in recent years to protect the images of the Oakland Raiders, New England Patriots, Dallas Cowboys -- and even the win-starved Cincinnati Bengals.
The league would not say on Wednesday how much it earns from merchandise sales, but revealed that Steelers items sell better than any other teams. Troy Polamalu's jersey sells more on the league website than any other player's, and Hines Ward's shirt ranks 25th.
"The marks are a representation of the brand and the image of the league and they're valuable," said Mark Hart, Steelers director of strategic planning and development.
"The Steelers claim that anything in black and gold is theirs, and anything with a hypocycloid, which is a geometric shape, is theirs," complained Dravosburg-based attorney William J. Helzlsouer, representing Turtle Creek Sportswear.
Turtle Creek Sportswear, a 20-year-old, 12-employee company, is no stranger to the legal version of the Steel Curtain defense.
The team and league sued the firm in 2005, and owner Nicholas Wohlfarth agreed to stop marketing products like black and gold "Big Ben #7" caps. He also paid $10,000.
But investigators hired by the team and the NFL said that for the past month they've found products made by Turtle Creek Sportswear in local Shop 'n Save stores with slightly altered versions of the diamond-like hypocycloid shapes that make up the team's logo, plus the city's name, and various plays off player reputations.
For instance, a shirt with the phrase "Psycho Ward" also had the number 86, worn by Mr. Ward, a Steelers wide receiver. A shirt festooned with "Beware the Hair" had the number 43, worn by Mr. Polamalu, the barber-averse safety. A "Steel Curtain" shirt used a typeface remarkably like one on the team's website.
That similarity "is deliberate, yes," said Mr. Wohlfarth, at the hearing.
"It's an attempt to capture the popularity of the Pittsburgh Steelers for your own commercial purposes, isn't it?" New York City attorney Jeremy Feigelson, representing the Steelers and NFL, asked Mr. Wohlfarth.
Mr. Wolhfarth paused, before answering, "Yes."
He said that by cutting off one tip from each of the three hypocycloids in the team logo, and using the words "Pittsburgh" or "Sixburgh" instead of "Steelers," he was eliminating the possibility of consumer confusion. A disclaimer sticker noting that the product was not NFL-licensed was added to avoid lawsuits, he said.
The NFL and the Steelers want the court to seize Mr. Wohlfarth's profits, take the merchandise and impose a fine of $500 per day for each day on which the merchandise was sold. Judge McVerry said at the end of a hearing that he would rule soon on the request.
Mr. Helzlsouer said the hypocycloid was a steel industry symbol long before the team adopted it. He also showed photos of other merchandise on sale in the Strip District that also invoked the Steelers, suggesting that such images were everywhere in Pittsburgh.
Mr. Feigelson said the prevalence of knockoffs was irrelevant to a hearing on whether Mr. Wohlfarth and his company displayed contempt for the court-approved agreement they entered into in 2005. The attorney got Mr. Wohlfarth to admit that he was trying to undercut the higher-priced official league gear by taking $1.95 T-shirts, adding a Steelers inference, and selling them for $5, or doing the same with $12.50 hooded sweatshirts that he then sold for $19.99.
"They're using a cannon to swat at a fly," said Mr. Helzlsouer.
Rich Lord: email@example.com or 412-263-1542 First Published January 27, 2011 5:00 AM