Fox Sued for Using Muhammad Ali in Super Bowl Advertisement

Muhammad Ali - PHOTOFEST - H 2017
Columbia Pictures / Photofest

Fox Broadcasting has been hit with a $30 million lawsuit for using Muhammad Ali as the centerpiece in an advertisement right before the start of this year's Super Bowl.

Muhammad Ali Enterprises, which owns intellectual property rights associated with the boxing legend, filed its complaint in Illinois federal court Tuesday. The three-minute promotional spot in question (see below) depicts Ali throughout his career, using archival footage and referring to him as "The Greatest," before shifting its focus to NFL legends including Joe Montana, Joe Namath, Vince Lombardi and Tom Brady. The narrator tells viewers that "in the Super Bowl many have marched towards this same confrontation with greatness" as images of Ali and others are juxtaposed.

The plaintiff asserts this is a false endorsement under the Lanham Act and a violation of the Illinois Right of Publicity Act. (Read the full complaint.)

The February spot, arguably a documentary short, came eight months after Ali's death, and according to the complaint, "Fox never requested or received MAE's permission to use Ali's identity or to imply his endorsement in connection with the services offered by Fox, including its broadcast of the Super Bowl."

Muhammad Ali Enterprises is owned by Authentic Brands, which purchased trademarks and other rights associated with the boxer in 2013 from the Core Media Group, which once produced American Idol when it was on Fox.

In suing over publicity rights in Illinois, the plaintiff is looking to score a similar success to Michael Jordan, who a couple of years ago won $8.9 million in damages after a Chicago-area grocery store took out an advertisement in Sports Illustrated congratulating him on his induction into the Basketball Hall of Fame. Frederick Sperling, who handled that Jordan case, is the lead attorney representing Muhammad Ali Enterprises. He's built a roster of sports clients, including soccer legend Pele in an ongoing lawsuit against Samsung.

Fox's potential defenses include nominative fair use. The $30 million in damages asserted appears to derive from the cost of three minutes of broadcast time to other Super Bowl advertisers.

The Hollywood Reporter has reached out to Fox for comment.