In 1992, if you had made a list of athletes best-suited to serve as global spokesmen for the game of basketball, you would’ve ended up with a list almost identical to the ’92 Dream Team.
It’s no coincidence, that 23 years later, the NBA boasts rosters full of young international players whose parents may well have been introduced to the game through Magic and Bird’s charismatic warpath to gold at the Barcelona games.
When the 2015-16 season tipped off last week, about 22% of the league’s roster spots were held by foreign-born players. That’s significantly ahead of the NFL’s 0.65%, and not too far behind the MLB’s 26.5%. But MLB’s international talent pool — 220+ strong — is concentrated mostly throughout Latin America (17 countries). The NBA’s 100+ internationals come from 37 different countries and territories spread across all seven continents.
The NBA’s wide-range of nationalities is closer to the top-flight international soccer leagues that routinely field players from 50+ countries. While it’s no secret that soccer is the world’s most popular sport, the data is showing that the NBA is making its case for the coveted second spot.
But I’m not a stats guy. I’m a lifelong soccer fan, and a marketing-slash-design guy by trade. And that’s probably why I have noticed a subtle trend. As the NBA’s global expansion has unfurled — with its influence spreading to eager fans — it is starting to look on the surface a bit more like soccer. And not just in the way that LeBron has taken to flopping to sell calls.
Over the past few seasons, the Nets, Raptors, Wizards, Bucks, 76ers, Clippers, Hawks and Pelicans all revealed logo redesigns or total rebrands that prominently include a crest-based logo option. The self-contained “crest-style” logo is a staple in design for soccer, akin to the sort of images or symbols that would have been attached to royal families long ago.
Importantly, these types of logos endure now, not because of sentimentality, but for the same reason any creative solution survives — they make sense and money. Crests are small, and can be relegated to a chest-pocket placement, freeing up real estate on the jersey for ads. They are also self-contained, making it easier to merchandise — just drop the logo into a mockup and you are more or less good to go. Voilà — a lazy designer’s dream!
Tellingly, most of these logos include a graphic representation of a basketball instead of a mascot. Mascots are uncommon overseas, and the basketball is a useful reminder for fans what it is these Pelicans from New Orleans play again. The new crop of logos is subtler, cleaner, stylish and more stripped down. They’re a far cry from the ’90s-era NBA logos that often drew ire for being obvious, loud and Disney-esque.
Another aesthetic cue, likely aimed at the inevitable influx of jersey ads is the addition of form-fitting, short-sleeved jerseys. Apart from the sleeves offering more space, they also are more flattering to the 99.9% of the human population who weren’t born with a body like Russell Westbrook’s.
When jersey ads arrive (see Kia and the upcoming All-Star jerseys), just like in the EPL, we can expect international interest from potential sponsors. NBA sponsors keep getting more global, with massive players, like Chinese smartphone manufacturer ZTE, adding team sponsorships to its portfolio to increase their visibility stateside. Which might be a good idea, because until it added my hometown Bulls to the roster of partner teams, I had no idea they were America’s fastest-growing mobile manufacturer.
The Euro-parroting extends to other corners of teams’ marketing as well. The Bucks, whose rebranding has been comprehensive, have been helping along the creation of a fan section reminiscent of soccer’s supporters groups. It is a smart move that should pay dividends if embraced organically by the fans. Supporters groups make going to the game an experience, and they are often passionate and convincing brand ambassadors for struggling franchises.
In the ’90s, the NBA’s stars introduced the world to basketball in a major way. A generation later, the world is returning the favor by remaking the game in their image. The next few decades could see the sport’s profile expand in ways that will justify the insane TV rights deals, and as the popularity gap between soccer and the NBA closes, the two sports will continue to look more alike.
Since I’ll be looking more stylish in the jerseys and having more fun at the games sitting with newly founded supporters groups, it’s hard to not be excited about that.