Licenses, Trademarks, and Publicity Rights
Many years ago, small developers could make and sell computer games using names such as NFL and get away with it because the National Football League never knew about it. You can't do this now. Interactive entertainment is big business, and you have to be scrupulously careful to avoid violating trademarks or personal publicity rights.
The exact details vary from league to league and country to country, but generally in America the professional leagues hold the license to use the names, logos, uniform designs, and other indicia of all the teams in a league, plus the name and logo of the league itself. Colleges and universities normally belong to a governing body such as the National Collegiate Athletics Association in the USA, which represents their collective interests. You or your publisher will have to negotiate an agreement with the league or governing body to use these symbols in your game. If you do not have such an agreement, you can refer to teams only by their towns (such as San Francisco or Madrid) rather than their team names, and you may not use their logos, uniform colors, or other identifying marks.
A variety of governing bodies in different countries around the world manage individual sports such as gymnastics or figure skating. The names and indicia of particular events, such as the Kentucky Derby, belong to the organizations that produce them—in this case, the Churchill Downs racetrack. In recent years, these groups have begun to exploit their intellectual property rights in a variety of ways, so they tend to come down hard on anything that seems to be an infringement. Don't assume that just because an event has been around for decades you can freely use its name.
You cannot use the name or photograph of a real athlete without permission. An athlete's name and likeness make up part of his personal publicity rights, and of course, famous athletes sell the rights to use their names for millions of dollars when they endorse a particular product as an individual. You might need to negotiate with an organization that licenses the rights to use all the athletes' names collectively. This might be the league in some cases; in others, however, including the NFL and Major League Baseball, you have to contact the athletes' unions. In
college sports, the rules will be different again. Unless you have the endorsement of a specific athlete, you must make sure that your game displays all athletes in approximately the same way, or endorsement could be implied. You can't make it look as if an athlete has endorsed your game when that's not the case.
Photographs present further difficulties. You must obtain a license from the person in the photograph and also the photograph's copyright holder (usually the person who took the photograph). Again, some governing bodies use special clearinghouses for these kinds of things: NFL Photos, a special department of the NFL, licenses still photos for all the photographers who are accredited to take pictures at NFL matches. The license from the copyright holder, however, does not grant you the personal publicity rights of the athlete in the picture; you have to obtain those separately. You can also license photos from the trading card companies, as well as from journalistic bodies such as the Associated Press, and from private photo libraries.
In short, the whole issue of rights in sports games is a legal minefield. Nowadays, even the stadiums might claim special rights, and many stadium owners auction the name of the stadium to the highest bidder, as with AT&T Park (the San Francisco baseball stadium). As a designer, you probably won't have to deal with obtaining all these licenses yourself, but you should know that it's not safe to specify simply that a game will use all the team and athlete names and photos. Obtaining them and the right to use them is a very costly and time-consuming business. It's best to design the game in such a way that it doesn't depend on having these things unless you're certain that they will be available.