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NFL alum Shawne Merriman: What I learned from suing Nike

Daniel Roberts
Senior Writer

Former NFL linebacker Shawne Merriman earned the nickname “Lights Out” for the brute force of his tackling back in high school, and as soon as he got to the NFL in 2005, he made a forward-thinking move: He bought the rights to the phrase from Loomworks Apparel, a California company that owned it. (Loomworks was using it on pajamas, fittingly.)

In 2007, Merriman incorporated Lights Out as a company and began selling a wide range of clothing and accessories. Since leaving the league in 2012, he has spent a lot of his time litigating when other companies use the phrase. In 2014, he sued Nike for $18 million for using “Lights Out” on some of its apparel, and this year he sued Vermont Teddy Bear Co for using it on pajamas.

Now, after Nike settled the two-and-a-half-year trademark infringement dispute in February for an undisclosed sum, Merriman is moving on.

Lights Out recently scored a marketing partnership with Bellator, the second-largest mixed martial arts promoter behind the Ultimate Fighting Championship. Bellator, which airs its fights on Spike TV, is using the “Lights Out” name in the ring and on the gear some of its fighters wear. Lights Out is not the exclusive apparel of Bellator, but Merriman says that’s one of his goals.

Suing Nike taught Merriman about the apparel business

Lights Out apparel has sold in national chains as big as Walmart, and Merriman has aims to make it a mainstream fitness apparel brand. The dispute with Nike was long and ugly, since Merriman had previously been endorsed by Nike; he calls it a “dogfight.” But it also helped him build his business understanding.

As part of the lawsuit, Merriman says, Nike had to “open their books a little bit” to him, and he took mental notes for how to run his own brand.

“It allowed me to see how business and companies of that magnitude are run,” he says. “It was like getting my MBA in the apparel space in business—with a few gray hairs. You have to go after and really protect your trademark, because at the end of the day, your brand and trademark is only as big as you protect it. I had to [sue], I had no choice or I’d have no company. And I’m glad we settled it and got past that, and the very next day, when everything was done, I said, ‘Okay, now we’re going to go after it.’ And I started to really build Lights Out, and it’s been my only passion.”

Merriman and Lights Out get in the ring with Bellator

Bellator could bring more name awareness to Lights Out—which NFL fans know as Merriman’s nickname, but not necessarily as a clothing brand. The partnership came about from Merriman’s own personal interest in MMA. In 2006, he started training with Jay Glazer (a Fox Sports football broadcaster who also owns an MMA gym).

“I just wanted to get my hand-eye coordination better, my stamina, stuff like that,” Merriman says, “but I ended up falling in love with the sport.”

Then, more recently, he met Scott Coker, the president of Bellator. He saw an opportunity: “I wanted to build Lights Out, a brand that I own, with another big brand that’s on the rise. And I’ve developed a great relationship with them and Spike TV and the people over at Viacom.”

He now appears at Bellator fights as a sort of ambassador, and has aims to sign Bellator fighters to Lights Out endorsement deals.

Then again, Bellator president Scott Coker’s comments about the partnership at a Bellator press conference in August made it sound like the deal is more about setting up a fighting career for Merriman. “He has a real savvy business mind and he wants to grow his apparel brand,” Coker said. “I said, ‘Look, why don’t we work together to help you build your brand, and you can get out there and talk about Bellator and we can have a nice friendly relationship. And then if you ever want to fight one day, we can have you fight.’”

Merriman doesn’t dismiss the idea of becoming an MMA fighter. “It’s open,” he says. “It’s possible. I’m a big opportunity guy. And I feel like if the opportunity is big enough… because I’ve been an athlete my whole life, I have the discipline to go and get better at something. And if it was on the table, it’s possible.”

Why are NFL ratings are down?

Meanwhile, in the sport he left, television ratings have been down every week this season compared to last year. The NFL’s ratings crisis has become a major topic of discussion, with fans and the media wondering the cause. Is it the election? Cord-cutting? Over-saturation of football? Quality of gameplay? Even the NFL isn’t sure of the cause.

Merriman, a three-time Pro Bowler who played for seven years, has a theory. “I do believe the NFL has been too strict on things,” he says, citing examples like the NFL fining Josh Norman $10,000 for a bow-and-arrow touchdown celebration and penalizing Michael Crabtree for what it believed was a “throat slash” motion.

“People watch the game because it is  gladiator sport,” Merriman says. “People gather together because they love the aggression and the passion that comes with the game of football. And the second you start to take that away from guys who play an emotional-driven sport, I think you will also turn the fans off a little bit as well. So I hope that they cut back on that… If you start to take away from what made me watch Deion Sanders, Michael Irvin, all these guys, if you start to take that away, me, the 10-year-old Shawne Merriman, is not going to want to play football as much.”

Daniel Roberts is a writer at Yahoo Finance, covering sports business and technology. Follow him on Twitter at @readDanwrite. Sportsbook is our recurring sports business video series.

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