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NBA City Jerseys and the Dilution of Brand Identity

As another batch of jerseys are released, one has to wonder if honoring a city has started to dilute the brands of the NBA’s franchises

Most companies have a color palette that they internally associate with their brand. Consider Google and its multitude of apps that may be installed on your smartphone right now. Almost all of their apps include their specific shade of blue, yellow, green, and red. The use of these colors is also present throughout their marketing and other elements to help reinforce brand identity alongside other visual elements and fonts. Most companies do this, and for good reason. You want customers to know that what they are looking at is coming from your company, to help build an association.

Major corporations aren’t the only entities that abide by these branding rules, sports teams tend to do the same. For instance, if you see Midnight Green and Gotham Green on an NFL field you would know which one belonged to the Philadelphia Eagles and the other to the New York Jets. I think about these sorts of brand associations as the NBA has rolled out its latest iteration of its City Jerseys, yearly changing alternate jerseys that are intended to be an homage to the city a team plays in. The league has been rolling out these jerseys since 2017, but it seems that these jerseys have departed from team colors in the name of selling new jerseys, further diluting brand identity.

The Fine Line of City and Team

A city and its basketball team often have a unique relationship. Most NBA teams these days play in the downtown areas of the cities that they represent. They play 41 home games in their cities, which helps to drive the local economy to make downtown areas more vibrant. This allows restaurants nearby to have more business and make residential development more attractive in the city. It was reported that when LeBron James played for the Cleveland Cavaliers, his presence brought in an additional $200M to the economy of downtown Cleveland.

These same teams can also be a burden to their cities when their stadiums need renovations and they ask that expense to be handled by taxpayers. These negotiations can occasionally lead to teams relocating to new cities as we have seen over the last couple of decades when Seattle lost its basketball team to Oklahoma City and San Diego and St. Louis lost their football teams to Los Angeles. Even with that prospect, teams are a big part of their city's identity, especially in smaller markets like Memphis where the basketball team is the only pro show in town. The Grizzlies have always been viewed as a gritty franchise built around toughness, which mirrors the mentality of the city that they play in.

With these defined ties between the two entities, the concept of a jersey that pays homage to the city where the team plays makes a lot of sense. There have been notable tiebacks to cities and communities, even with a dash of pop culture. The Miami Heat, for instance, have done various iterations of their “Miami Vice” jerseys that pay homage to the iconic 1980s TV show with bright colors that remind the audience of that era of South Beach fashion.

In recent years we have also seen homages to the airports of Portland and Charlotte from the Trail Blazers and Hornets, respectively. There have also been homages to things relevant to the cities themselves like Washington's cherry blossom jersey or Atlanta’s peach theme jerseys, which give a nod to local agriculture. And while these designs clearly intend to speak to the core fan base of the team and the city, one has to wonder if Nike and the NBA are simply taking advantage of streetwear culture to sell extra jerseys every year.

Streetwear, Fashion, and a Diluted Market

When new NBA City Jerseys are released I am often reminded of European soccer. Soccer jerseys, since they are in essence fancy t-shirts, have become a staple in modern streetwear fashion. And much like the NBA, the major clubs in Europe are always experimenting with new designs and colors for their alternate kits to drive up jersey sales. French super power Paris Saint-Germain is known by its blue, red, and white color scheme, but in recent years it has dabbled in black and gold or pink jerseys to stand out. Italian club Juventus has experimented in its formula as well, ditching the traditional black and white vertical stripes in favor of pink and orange alternate jerseys.

It seems that the NBA is heading into this direction as basketball jerseys have become a staple in streetwear as well. This is why some of the NBA’s recent City Jerseys have been influenced by artists. Such is the case for the Brooklyn Nets City Jersey for this year, which features a design by Brooklyn-based artist KAWS. The Nets have done similar designs in recent years that have been inspired by the work of the legendary Jean Michael Basquiat. This connection between sports and culture helps to establish NBA jerseys as a fashion statement as much as a proclamation of fandom.

This year's jerseys feature a variety of homages that are both specific to teams (such as the Portland Trail Blazers Jack Ramsey inspired threads) and to the city itself (such as the Atlanta Hawks new jerseys). In the process of these varied pieces of inspiration, a fact remains that they are all loosely tied together by the shared geography of the city, and in many instances forgoing brand identity. Such is the case for the Washington Wizards, who’s new City Jersey features black, teal, and bronze with a gothic font that is lifted straight from the Declaration of Independence. While it is a nice homage to the Founding Fathers of the United States it takes away from the brand identity of the Wizards. This is all for the sake of selling more jerseys for Nike and the NBA.

Dollars and Sense

NBA jersey sales are big business. Nike signed an 8-year branding deal with the NBA that was worth $1 billion. Yearly, NBA jersey sales account for a $125 million market. Nike, to make it worth their investment, wants repeat customers to its jersey sales. One way to do this, in addition to relying on trades and free agency moves, is to offer a new design every season for diehard fans to purchase.

When we consider that sports fans these days are just as likely to be fans of players as they are teams, a yearly refresh of the City Jersey is a reason to add to a collection. Let’s say you are a Kevin Durant fan, and you have been following him since his rookie year with the Seattle Sonics. For this fan, a yearly jersey refresh allows for a collection to grow, almost like trading cards. Each year’s jersey holds a special place in the owner's heart and reinforces the fandom of the player.

Where this falls apart is the disintegration of the team's identity in favor of a new jersey. Because there is only so much runway with the core colors of the team before ideas become redundant. Beyond that, when a team has a great design it is often short-lived as opposed to living as a true alternate to the standard jerseys. The aforementioned Miami Vice jerseys for instance, could have remained as a viable alternate jersey for multiple years as opposed to constantly needing to innovate over what was already working. What has resulted is the current uninspired “Heat Culture” jerseys that the Heat will be donning this year.

The sheer oversaturation of the NBA’s City Jerseys every season reminds us that sports is, despite all of our romanticism, still a business. Both Nike and the NBA are focused on profitability and the way that they do that is through a yearly jersey refresh intended to get people to spend their money on Fanatics. As a fan of the sport and a lover of a good jersey, I just wish that they would keep the good ones around for more than one season and stop changing for change's sake.

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