Upping the game

BY Mike Barber

The NBA’s branding efforts are in a league of their own

Perhaps better than any other league on the continent, North America’s National Basketball Association (NBA) understands the full range of branding possibilities.

Major League Baseball and the National Hockey League are content to rely on history and tradition (both fine brand strategies in their own right), while the National Football League, international ratings behemoth that it is, doesn’t really have to worry about standing out, considering the approximately $13 billion it generates each year.

By contrast, the NBA’s 30 teams seem to be constantly changing uniforms, logos and court designs—especially less successful teams in smaller markets. As a result, the NBA has become our most exciting and colourful professional sports league.

As we settle into another season, let’s take a look at some of the different ways that NBA teams have rebranded (and re-rebranded) to glean some lessons about fine-tuning your brand.

Get local: New Orleans Pelicans

In 2003, the struggling Charlotte Hornets relocated to New Orleans, where their streak of mediocrity stretched on for another decade.

The decade wasn’t so easy for the Big Easy either, which suffered through Hurricane Katrina, the Deepwater Horizon spill and plenty of acrimony while rebuilding.

Now, if there’s one thing New Orleans residents love, it’s a party; if there’s a second, it’s New Orleans itself—and no wonder, given the seemingly endless music, artery-busting cuisine, stunning architecture and a dedication to laissez les bon temps rouler. In search of a proper identity, the team’s owners decided to get local—almost to the point of absurdity.

First, the team changed their name to the Pelicans—which led to all manner of head-scratching outside of Louisiana, but was greeted enthusiastically by a state where the bird graces licence plates and the state flag, and also served as a symbol of rebirth after Katrina and Deepwater Horizon.

The Pelicans then introduced the King Cake Baby mascot—nightmare fuel for outsiders, but a delightful inside-joke for locals (King Cakes being a traditional Mardi Gras treat).

They adorned their uniforms with subtle New Orleans touches—fleurs-de-lis, typefaces that speak to the city’s French roots—and created an alternate jersey in the Mardi Gras colours of green, yellow and purple, an otherwise atrocious combination that only makes sense if you’re a devout Catholic … or about 12 Sazeracs deep.

New Orleans is falling in love with the team—attendance is up more than double from 2012/13—and after hosting another All-Star Game there in 2017, the city’s third in a decade, the NBA seems to have fallen in love with New Orleans, too.

The Pelicans aren’t about to rival the NFL’s Saints for primacy in the Crescent City just yet, but with a budding superstar in Anthony Davis, a trash-talking, shot-blocking, controversy-starting monster in DeMarcus Cousins and an identity that cuts straight to the core of what makes New Orleans so damn great, this team is en route to being as key to the city’s fabric as po’ boys and beignets.

Lesson: Know what makes your market tick—and feel free to avail yourself of built-in goodwill associated with that market’s peculiarities, outsiders be damned.

Get retro: Utah Jazz

Design trends change faster in the NBA than probably any other pro sports league. Throw in a bunch of one-off uniforms and a grab bag of alternate jerseys and you could be forgiven for losing track of what teams actually look like when they take the court. (With one exception—the Chicago Bulls haven’t touched their logo one iota since the 1960s.)

It’s no surprise, then, that a lot of teams in need of standing out—whether they need to flush away memories of mediocrity or are looking for the cash infusion of new merch sales—turn to the NBA’s most tried, tested and true formula: the throwback.

Take the Utah Jazz: from the mid-1990s to mid-2010s, they suffered through entirely forgettable seasons while wearing uniforms more fit for discount American beer than a professional basketball team. By 2010, the team was wearing uniforms that neither spoke much to “jazz” nor “basketball” (with a bit of “Utah” coming across in the mountains).

To regain fan interest, the Jazz management turned back the clock 20 years to the logo and colours the team wore during the high-flying ’80s, when the team was led by all-stars Karl Malone and John Stockton. The music note-cum-basketball “J” came back as the primary logo; steel blues and greys were ditched in favour of deeper green, blue and yellow.

By the start of last season, all lingering traces of the brand from the dark decades had been dispatched altogether in favour of the decidedly retro—just as management had finally put together a playoff-worthy team on the court. All in all, the re-rebrand helped see the franchise’s value jump from $525 million in 2014 to more than $900 million today, according to Forbes.

Lesson: Don’t be afraid to go back to what made your audience fall in love with you in the first place.

Note: A few other teams have gone the same route to similar success. The Washington Wizards (née the Bullets) reverted to the blue, red and white of their ’70s and ’80s unis that had been ditched when they changed the name to “Wizards” due to rampant gun crime in D.C., while the Charlotte Hornets brought back the beloved teal and purple of their mid-’90s glory days to dispel their entirely forgettable tenure as the “Charlotte Bobcats” to the dustbins of history.

Get fresh: Milwaukee Bucks

Of course, going throwback only works if you have a history worth mining.

While some fans of the Milwaukee Bucks might recall the team’s lone championship season of 1970/71, most would have come of age during the team’s decades-long stretch of futility: since 1989, they’ve only once advanced beyond the first round of the playoffs. Add to that the fact that basketball has historically played third fiddle in Wisconsin—the NFL’s Green Bay Packers and the University of Wisconsin Badgers dominate the state, to say nothing of the MLB’s Milwaukee Brewers, or the slew of pro franchises in nearby Chicago.

By 2014, the Bucks were ranked as the least valuable franchise in the league. What was a poor brand to do? After a new ownership group put rumours of relocation to rest in 2015, they forked over millions for new uniforms, new logos, new court designs and a new tagline. The head-to-toe rebrand—nearly everything about the team’s visual identity (except for the name) was changed—resulted in one of the most beautiful looks you’ll find in the NBA, or any league, for that matter.

The logo was upgraded from an eight-point buck to a 12-point buck (to reflect the maturing franchise) with a cleaner, more modern look; careful scrutiny reveals a hidden basketball in the antlers and an M (for Milwaukee) in the buck’s chest.

The uniforms did away with red—after blue, the most overused colour in the league—and embraced “green and cream,” a colour scheme unlike anything else in the league, referencing Milwaukee’s “Cream City” moniker (because of the prevalence of cream-coloured bricks in the city’s architecture) and subtly aligning with the Packers’ beloved “green and gold.” Small touches of blue shout-out the city’s blue-collar reputation, as well as its proximity to multiple rivers and the Great Lakes.

Before we get too far ahead of ourselves in gushing over the Bucks, we should point out that the team still isn’t a serious contender. But the team is young—small forward Giannis “The Greek Freak” Antetokounmpo is a legitimate star in the making—and attendance is steadily increasing. Thematically, the team has a stronger identity today than it’s had in a quarter-century, and the Bucks, long the league’s afterthought, are finally giving their fans some bang.

Lesson: Good design should differentiate you from your competitors while reinforcing a connection to the product. Just make sure the product improves, too.

Get good: Toronto Raptors

Around the Sway offices, impartiality only goes so far when it comes to basketball—in particular, the Toronto Raptors. We love ’em, from their silly name to the Super Fan to the game-day pizza giveaways.

Throughout their first 20 seasons of ups and downs (mostly downs), the team struggled mightily to cobble together an identity other than “the one team from Canada that lasted” (RIP, Vancouver Grizzlies). Visually, that search for identity translated into the infamous purple and black “dribbling dino” uniforms of the ’90s, then morphed into the red and whites of the aughts.

Then came a new-ish, less cartoonish logo—a basketball with three raptor claw marks in it—a partnership with Toronto booster nonpareil Drake.

Unfortunately, it would be an understatement to say that the new logo wasn’t well received.

Complaints centred on its similarity to the logo of the Brooklyn Nets and the fact that Drake, the Raptors’ best ambassador, was unhappy with the result, which led to a “compromise” during the rollout—never a good idea.

ESPN uniform columnist Paul Lukas bashed the logo as “generic” and “nondescript”; the Toronto Star’s Alan Middleton and Doug Smith described the rollout as “completely amateur” and “the Great Logo Fiasco,” respectively.

And yet, despite the complaining, the Raps are more popular than ever, and merchandise has been flying off shelves. Why? Partly because armchair marketers always chime in to complain about new high-profile identities at first, but after a while, everyone forgets what all the fuss was about.

Also, perhaps more importantly, the Raps got good. Starting in 2013, team president Masai Ujiri oversaw a transformation of the team’s roster that upgraded them from a motley assortment of spare parts to a fearsome, hungry, rough-and-tumble core centred by the blossoming bromance of stars Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan.

Between 2012 and 2017, the Raps went from regular bottom-dwellers to perennial playoff threats, going to their first-ever conference finals in 2016, where they lost, valiantly, to LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers. The Raps would likely have done so again in 2017 had they not run into LeBron a round earlier than the year before.

In that short amount of time, the Raps’ average attendance grew by more than 3,000 fans per game. Season tickets sold out for the first time since 2001. The franchise’s value doubled. And around Toronto, home to more losing sports seasons than just about anywhere else on the continent, you’re about as likely to encounter Raps merchandise in the streets as you are to find Maple Leafs gear—quite the accomplishment in a still-hockey-mad town.

The Raps brand is undoubtedly stronger than it’s ever been, and on-court success (plus or minus a couple highly marketable superstars) has almost everything to do with it.

Most of the credit goes to Ujiri for turning the ship around, but Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment (MLSE), the conglomerate that owns the Raps (and the Maple Leafs) also had the foresight to open up their pocketbooks to let Ujiri build the team he wanted and to more or less stay out of his way while doing so.

In the end, MLSE is richer than ever and the Raps are more beloved than they’ve ever been.

Lesson: Nothing sells like success—but it can also cost a lot. Invest in smart management and a good product.