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New HBO series uses NFL team names, logos without NFL consent

For the first time since Playmakers, a series based on the world of professional football will appear on TV. For the first time ever, a TV series will use the names of logos of NFL teams without the express written consent of the NFL.

PFT has gotten an advance look at Ballers, the new HBO series starring Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. Debuting on June 21, the pilot episode of the weekly half-hour show begins with Johnson’s character laying in bed, having flashbacks to his career as a member of the Miami Dolphins, playing in a game against the Buffalo Bills. Both team uniforms are used, without alteration.

The first episode includes a scene from a conference room with a Packers logo on the wall. Later, one of the characters visits the fictional coach of the Miami Dolphins, who is wearing a hat with a Dolphins logo (the old logo, not the current one). The second episode includes multiple scenes at a Dolphins offseason practice, with the players wearing helmets bearing the Dolphins logo (the current one, not the old one).

“HBO is always mindful of other intellectual property owners, but in this context there is no legal requirement to obtain their consent,” an HBO spokesperson said in a statement issued to PFT on Sunday afternoon. HBO confirmed that the NFL has no involvement in the series.

The NFL initially declined comment, and then reiterated its position after being informed of HBO’s official comment.

Playmakers was based on the fictional pro football team known as the Cougars. Even though Playmakers used no NFL team names or logos, ESPN dumped the show under direct pressure from the NFL, given concerns regarding the manner in which the show depicted professional football players. The first episode of Ballers focuses in part on an NFL player who has sex in the bathroom of a nightclub with a woman he had just met, and who then beats up a fan who confronts the player about keeping the bathroom occupied for an extended period of time.

Even if HBO is within its legal rights to use NFL team names and logo (past films like Any Given Sunday and The Replacements surely would have liked to use real team names and logos, and presumably didn’t due to legal concerns), HBO has a separate business relationship with the NFL, through the annual Hard Knocks series. So for the same reason the NFL squeezed ESPN more than a decade ago, the NFL could squeeze HBO now.

Since the NFL currently has no comment, it’s hard to know what the league will (or won’t) do about the situation. But the first two episodes of Ballers definitely have a Playmakers vibe to them, and it’ll be interesting to see how the show will be received by the NFL, the NFL Players Association, and individual NFL teams.