Miami Vice and Basquiat Ball: Heat, Nets Lead NBA Alternate Jersey Rush

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Shortly after signing an apparel deal with the NBA that would begin with the 2017-18 season, Nike sent representatives to meet with all 30 teams to introduce a novel idea. For most of NBA history, home teams wore white; road teams wore colors; and occasionally you’d see a throwback or an alternate jersey. Nike wanted to mix things up. They approached teams with the concept of a City Edition uniform, featuring elements unique to each hometown’s cultures and local identities.

Plenty of teams jumped into collaborating, but when Nike interviewed the Miami Heat, the meeting went a little differently than it did with others. “We were basically like, ‘We’ve got it. We’re good,’” Heat vice president of creative and digital marketing Jennifer Alvarez said. “We were so solid and so clear on what the opportunity was, [and] we were going to take the lead in designing it.”

The team’s designers had noticed a consistent pink and blue scheme popping up in fan concept art on the internet (laser fuchsia and blue gale, to be exact), inspired by the TV show Miami Vice. By the time Nike reached out, the Heat already knew what their colorway was going to be.

“We knew we had just an embarrassment of riches, because at that first design meeting, I’m looking at like 80 killer uniforms, and then one just stood out as instantly wearable,” Alvarez said. “I could’ve peeled it off the paper. It screamed Miami in ways that other uniforms didn’t quite. It hit our boldness, our flavor, our vivid colors.”

Miami, which designed its Floridians jerseys in-house back in 2005, has been playing the uniform game for a long time. Now the whole league is playing too. Each team had the option of wearing up to six uniform editions this season: Association (the traditional “home” uniforms), Icon (traditional “road” uniforms), City, Classic, Statement and Earned (for 2020 playoff teams). According to the league, 50% of global jersey sales, which have doubled since Nike came on as the league’s official outfitter in 2017, are alternate editions (not Association or Icon).

Miami’s alternates were special, however. In the campaign’s first year, more Vice jerseys were sold than the other 29 teams’ City Editions combined. The success has continued with this season’s “cotton candy uniform,” as described by Miami’s chief marketing officer Michael McCullough, which accounted for a third of league-wide jersey sales revenue in December 2020.

Vice will not return next season, though, as the Heat wore the Vice Versa jersey for the final time last night. “We knew it was going to end from the very start,” McCullough said. “Could we keep going and think of something else? Yeah, probably. But we had a beginning and an end for Vice, and we’re going out with a bang.”

The Vice Versa uniform wasn’t part of the initial plan, but Vice was never just going to be a single year. Back in 2017, the team had already mapped out four variations of the Vice jersey to release over multiple seasons: white, black, pink and blue. They started with white, fearing the black jerseys were so cool that everything after would struggle.

“We always want a multi-year campaign,” Alvarez said. “It’s just really hard to come up with killer jerseys, and to do a completely fresh, completely novel idea year after year. It would be impossible to always hit a home run. Multi-year programs allow us the opportunity to kind of catch our breath.”

They also give fans more time to invest in a concept. “When the blue uniform comes out, the black stuff is still relevant, because it’s all the same,” McCullough said. “You don’t have to feel bad and go, ‘Oh, that was two years ago, why would I want to wear that to a game?’”

Before the second year of Vice, the Heat hosted Midnight Madness, an event to sell Vice-related merchandise. No autographs. No players in attendance. And yet, the arena was packed. “People were fired up to take a picture with a basketball court,” McCullough said. “Who does that? Who cares about a court? Well, we made people care. And now all the teams are starting to catch on. You can’t have a cool uniform on your core court that doesn’t even match!”

The team has sold 245,000 jerseys at brick-and-mortar and online team stores over the past four seasons, more than it sold during the four seasons when LeBron James and Dwyane Wade won two championships. The Heat have also sold more than 400,000 additional Vice-related merchandise items, including more than $5 million in revenue generated from Florida state license plates (a portion of which went to charity).

McCullough believes the franchise’s organizational structure gives the Heat a leg up when driving a campaign like Vice. Unlike many teams, the Heat’s retail, creative and business communications groups all “sit with marketing,” McCullough said. “Everything you need to drive a campaign sits in marketing. It’s not like we’re trying to rope in all these disparate departments.”

Additionally, the Heat have their own NBA-licensed apparel line, Court Culture, whose creative team designs the uniforms as well as merchandise that accompanies the jersey. “When we launched Vice Versa this year, there is the uniform,” Alvarez said, “but there are 80 additional SKUs.”

The Nets are another team harvesting revenue from alternate jerseys. While two-thirds of the Heat’s revenue over the past four years has been Vice-related, an even higher percentage (81%) of jersey sales this season have been alternates. Nearly half have come from the City Edition, which is inspired by the Brooklyn-born artist Jean-Michel Basquiat.

While the jersey isn’t necessarily part of a multi-year program, as with Miami Vice, it still carries connective tissue from the Nets’ previous design, which also featured vibrant colors and leaned into Brooklyn’s culture outside of basketball by paying homage to rap legend Notorious B.I.G.

The most-trafficked day on this season was the City Edition launch on Dec. 3. “It’s the [uniform] that most overtly speaks to the culture of the region,” BSE Global senior vice president of brand marketing and solutions Andrew Karson said. “Miami is another great example. That’s a very unique concept to the Heat, and they’ve touched upon a cultural nerve. What can we put into a jersey that is authentic to us, and no one else? Hopefully that will get our fans excited.”

Some excitement over jerseys comes organically, like when Kevin Durant mentions the City Edition design in a recent interview, but deliberate planning around the calendar is crucial. For example, the start of Black History Month was a perfect opportunity for the Nets to tell more of Basquiat’s story, along with wearing the uniforms for games on Feb. 2 and Feb. 5. Unlike the Heat, the Nets will also showcase their City Edition in the postseason.

The Nets also differed from the Heat by sporting a Classic Edition this season, hoping to be inclusive of fans across the Hudson River by wearing their old baby blue getups. “That was an opportunity to lean into our history in New Jersey a bit more and speak to some of the great teams that we had in the early ’90s,” Karson said. “We’re fortunate that that resonates with Kyrie, so we did a piece or two with him to help tell that story.”

Brooklyn has three of the 10 most popular jerseys in the league: Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving and James Harden. Even though Nike takes the lead on designing the uniforms, the team collaborates with its players throughout the process. “It’s not lost upon us that these guys have an incredible platform themselves and a ton of people are passionate about them, and what they stand for, and what they wear,” Karson said. “That’s as important as any input we’re going to have.”

Communication with players also influenced the Heat’s strategy after the first season of Vice. The players loved the uniforms but would ask for a switch after several consecutive games wearing them, especially if the team lost. “We don’t want people to have Vice fatigue by wearing it too many times,” McCullough said.

That measured approach may not please all fans, many of whom have requested a permanent change to Vice, but the Heat are committed to their core black, white and red. “If Vice brings in you or your family or whomever, that’s great. We want [you] in our fanbase,” McCullough said. “There are some people who are like, ‘Don’t ever change your core.’ We want you too!”

Added Alvarez: “The duality is what makes it fun. We can be Heat Culture, and hardest-working and best-conditioned, but we can also be the Vice Versa uniform that only our market could pull off.”

That duality may throw off some casual fans who tune into a Heat-Sixers game and see bright pink and all-black uniforms, respectively, but it will continue, as many teams have already locked in City Edition ideas for the 2022-23 season. Nike is also applying a similar model to the WNBA, which just unveiled three new jerseys per team in honor of the league’s 25th anniversary, and MLB, where seven teams are wearing City Connect gear this season. If you’re upset about the Boston Red Sox wearing yellow and light blue, blame the NBA for starting the trend.

“Some people are maybe a little confused about the different jerseys and what they mean and how many different jerseys, but ultimately I think these designs resonate with people. The sales data speaks to that,” Karson said. “There’s just a lot of fun to be had.”

Still, not all teams have approached the uniform game with as much fervor as the Heat or the Nets. More than half of the teams’ City Edition uniforms this year have little-to-no connection to previous seasons’ designs. “Some teams are sleeping on this opportunity. It’s a brand-builder, it’s a connection-strengthener, and it’s obviously revenue-generating,” Alvarez said.

“We’ve learned that we can make something be more successful from a revenue and merchandise standpoint than winning a championship with the Big Three,” McCullough said.

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