Does The Hornets Brand Still Have Sting?

9 Jun

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The Charlotte Hornets officially returned to the National Basketball Association (NBA) last month, when the club known as the Charlotte Bobcats relinquished its moniker in time for the draft lottery. The lottery is the league’s annual sweepstakes to determine which teams pick first from the latest pool of player prospects and might be as good a time as any for a choice PR move. This change is more than a symbolic gesture, however: it’s an exorcism, which effectively removes the mediocrity of one brand identity and reinstalls the popular heritage of another. 

Returned to its home town, the Hornets badge has immediate impact again and this is mostly due the nostalgia that sports fans feel for the original club. The Hornets — not the Bobcats — now have the ninth pick in June’s NBA draft and suddenly seem like a team any young star might want to play for. Of course, this is the power of branding, when it works.

Before the Hornets were shifted to New Orleans by former owner George Shinn, in 2002, they had been a lively and popular part of the NBA. Fans packed into the Charlotte Coliseum in those early years like, well, bees into a hive, which is no mean feat given that it has the capacity to house 24,000 people. The Hornets led the league in attendance during their first eight seasons, which included 358 consecutive sell-outs, even though they were a below average ball club for much of that period. 

The team did have some very good years on the court however, mostly between 1992 and ’98 when they twice made the playoffs. But any buzz the club built went beyond the win-loss column. The Hornets were flat out likable. They wore teal and purple uniforms with pinstripes, had engaging stars like Muggsy Bogues, Larry Johnson and Alonzo Mourning, and perhaps most importantly, were branded with a cartoon hornet. The emblem seems a little quirky in 2014, but it was whimsical in the late eighties, anthropomorphized with a feistiness that endeared fans to it. It was at least more lively than the Miami Heat’s flaming ball logo or the Orlando Magic’s Disney-style banner.

Indeed, the Hornets nickname has been evoking a fighting spirit in Charlotte for more than 230 years. Most notably, it was used by British army commander General Cornwallis to describe the home of Charlotteans during the Revolutionary War, when he referred to it as a “hornets nest of rebellion”. The city has used the hornet name for many of its sporting teams since those formative years, but first adopted it for pro basketball in 1988.

By 1995, the Hornets were selling more jerseys than any other NBA team, despite the fact that they would never make it past the second round of the playoffs. The Hornets brash uniforms were the work of local clothing designer, Julian Alexander, who clearly understood how to compliment the more familiar Carolina Blue with a less common sporting color like teal. It was certainly different from traditional gear like that worn by the New York Knicks or Boston Celtics, and yet the combination worked. The Hornets not only looked good but were a fun and fast-breaking affair that interrupted our obsession with Eastern Conferences stalwarts like the Celtics and Detroit Pistons. The timing was perfect.

Those glory days aren’t lost on NBA great Michael Jordan, who today owns the Charlotte organization, and is largely responsible for the reincarnation of the Hornets. He spoke about the move in a recent press release:

“It was important to us to acknowledge the heritage of the Charlotte Hornets when bringing the name back to the market,” said Jordan. “The purple and teal color scheme was instantly recognizable as being associated with the original Hornets and we felt it was only appropriate to utilize the colors once again with this historic brand.”

Given Charlotte’s association with the logo and fans passion for the brand, it’s easy to see why the Louisiana iteration never really had a chance. The Bobcats’ on-court performance didn’t help either. While they made a brief playoff appearance this year, the team had been a floundering for around a decade, reaching the playoffs just one other time, in 2004, and finished the 2011-12 season with a 7-59 record. That effort was good enough for the worst winning percentage in NBA history (.106).

A fresh start was needed. So the decision to revamp the New Orleans basketball club was made last year, seeing those old Hornets morph into Pelicans, Louisiana’s state bird. The pinstripes and teal also made way for colors more befitting the new identity, namely creole blue and mardi gras gold.

It was this change that left the door open for the second coming of Charlotte Buzz. Late last year, Bobcats brass estimated it would cost them about $3 million to rebrand, according to The Charlotte Observer, because so much signage and other logo material would have to be replaced. The Observer also reported that both Jordan and former NBA commissioner David Stern advocated a switch to the Hornets to better market Charlotte’s team. 

Both men likely saw the opportunity to tap into the ongoing nostalgia for the brand, which is evident in the number of people that still wear Charlotte Hornets apparel. To give you an idea, the Bobcats began selling Hornets merchandise at Charlotte’s Time Warner Cable Arena in January of this year, which contributed to some of the biggest merchandise sales the club has seen, according to a report in the Charlotte Business Journal.

Some of this has to do with the growing appetite for retro sports apparel among younger fans and fashion horses, but there’s also the fact that we simply miss a club a brand that we liked. Ask any NBA fan about those teams with Johnson, Bogues and Mourning and watch their eyes light up. It was a good time and since it’s end, we’ve truly had a chance to miss it.

Bogues, who was recently named as the Hornets new ambassador, described to me last year how special the original Charlotte team was.

“It was an amazing match made in heaven when I arrived in Charlotte,” he wrote in an email. “It was a franchise that was looking for young talent, so to be a part of the upstart along with Dell Curry, Rex Chapman, veterans like Earl Cureton, Kurt Rambis and Kelly Tripucka, was a special time. Charlotte was everything I envisioned as a pro. The fans made it special, in addition to incoming young players like Larry Johnson and Alonzo Mourning.”

Bogues attended a ceremony earlier this year with other Hornets legends to unveil the team’s new logo and typography. The 2014 hornet is more aggressive, with sharper eyes, raised antennae, spread wings and pointed stinger, which shows its ‘relentless intensity’, according to the club’s marketing spiel. It also says that the logo pays tribute to the original Hornets with its white accents, a stinger and the inclusion of a basketball. The team name is written across the insect’s body, instead of surrounding it the way it used to. The overall effect is familiar.

“The logos are the foundation of an organization’s brand identity, and our goal was to design logos that would have awareness, be relevant and resonate with our fans,” Bobcats chief executive, Fred Whitfield, said recently.

The designers have certainly done a good job of transporting the brand’s character into the new era, however the old cartoon logo will not be shelved thankfully. It’s received some small tweaks and will once again be part of the overall Charlotte Hornets experience.

“We recognize the heritage behind the original logo and our goal was to connect to the past but also include elements of an evolution,” said Whitfield.

The Charlotte Hornets’ careless demise was a cruel blow to fans. Now their return feels right, triumphant even. Marketing guru Seth Godin once wrote that buzz is a function of interest and timing. In Charlotte, they’re saying the buzz is back.

Before LeBron there was Chuck

7 Jun

It’s hard to know exactly when Converse’s star lit up.

In the eighties, when everything that matters in basketball’s evolution coalesced, Converse was already on the map, etched into sneakers and balls as if it always had been. If you fell in love with hoops culture back then, as most of today’s NBA fans did, then you could be forgiven for believing that Converse All Stars were as fundamental to the modern game as Larry Bird and Magic Johnson. Because they were.

It took decades of favourable endorsement to reach such lofty heights though, because let’s face it, it’s rare for any brand to transcend its industry in rapid time. Not Apple, nor even Facebook conquered the world overnight. Sure, a few people liking you is one thing, but cultural impact truly needs time to, well, click.

Marquis M. Converse confidently opened the doors to his “rubber shoe company” in small town Massachusetts in 1908, but even he had little indication an American and eventually global icon was on his hands. He started with basic rubber-soled footwear and soon followed up with a rudimentary tennis sneaker. But destiny, spurred by Dr. James Naismith’s new basket and ball game, certainly had grander visions for Converse.

Basketballers needed better tread and support. So Converse combined his rubber sole with an ankle-high canvas upper. Known as the All Star, the shoe was soon adopted by an All-American high school phenomenon, Chuck Taylor, who would later suit up with the original Celtics, Buffalo Germans and Akron Firestones. Taylor was essentially America’s first sneaker endorser, and his belief in the shoe made him even more than that: by 1923, Chuck literally signed-off on the footwear, and an icon was born.

Taylor’s signature was the start of something big. The famous New York Renaissance, the country’s first all African American team, took to the All Star shortly after. It was a partnership that further boosted Converse as product for genuine hoopsters, as the Rens’ innovative and quick passing style wowed fans and propelled the sport forward. But perhaps more importantly for Converse, the team justified their flair with success, compiling 2,588 wins and 539 losses in their short history.

The look now had credibility.

On the back of these early milestones, basketball began its ascent in popular culture in the 1930s. Converse penetrated the US pros, then the Olympics and college ranks, and of course, New York City’s most famous outdoor court, Rucker Park. But ultimately it was Hollywood and celebrity culture that catapulted “the star” into the commercial stratosphere and embedded its image into the social consciousness. From James Dean to John Travolta’s Danny Zuko, from almost every kid in John Hughes’ movies to Michael J. Fox in Back to the Future, and later Kurt Cobain, U2’s The Edge, Jack Black and Katy Perry – the All Stars became all purpose for the hot and the hip.

But in truth, Chucks, as they are affectionately known, are not for everyone. They fit a type. They’re the shoe of choice for the free of spirit, innovative, independent minded, and perhaps rebellious. And because basketball sneakers have morphed into something far more sophisticated, multi-coloured and multi-tiered, the All Star remains understated and undeniably cool.

There aren’t too many shoes that have performed such a feat.

Beckham and Lampard together in LA?

23 Jan

Beckham and Lampard in LA together?

It'd be an exciting midfield in Hollywood.

David Beckham and Frank Lampard are keeping the Los Angeles Galaxy in the news this MLS offseason, one with his new deal, the other with  the idea of a new deal.

Beckham has signed a new two-year contract with the Galaxy to ensure his family can continue living in LA, while Lampard is reportedly planning a move to LA following interest from the Galaxy, where his family can potentially emulate the Beckhams’ Hollywood lifestyle. A midfield with Beckham and Lampard roaming the centre of the park would be intriguing, one distributing and finding spaces, the other probing and always pushing forward. It’d be a formidable attack with an abundance of creativity.

The two seem unlikely to join forces before 2013, however, due to Lampard’s current contract. Further inhibiting the scenario is that MLS clubs are only allowed three “designated players” who are exempt from the normal pay structure of MLS clubs. Beckham, Robbie Keane and Landon Donovan occupy those spots for the Galaxy, who were clearly harmonious enough in combination that they led the club to a championship. Lampard, for all his talents and leadership, would be an expensive addition. He currently earns around $250,000 (US) a week.

Galaxy fans might be best to stick with Beckham jersey purchases for the time being.

Becks was interviewed by Google recently to talk about his decision to stay on in LA. See the video below:

Fantasy football gets a dose of reality

9 Sep

Fantasy football not only has 26 million participants, it has become so pervasive that its scores will now sit alongside real football scores.

Huh?

In a nutshell, Roger Goodell and the NFL have made the odd decision to display fantasy football results on the scoreboard at each NFL fixture.

NFL spokesperson Brian McCarthy told The New York Daily News: “We want you most of all to sit back and enjoy it – in our stadiums, on television, and wherever else you connect with the NFL. Football fans enjoying football is what we love.”

As much as I love fantasy football, this is a curious move. We go to the games for the game, not a multi-tiered informational experience. If I wanted that I could hook into my iPad and never leave the house. And anyone who’s at a game and more concerned with what their No.2 running back is doing on the other side of the country than the action in front of them, should seriously think about giving their seats up to someone who really wants to be at the game.

Sometimes the suits need to stop trying to be cool and just worry about the business at hand – providing a quality on-the-field product.

London Games will intro Albert

5 Sep

Next year’s London Olympics will see the debut of a new soccer ball, “The Albert”, affectionately named after the city’s Albert Hall.

A ball naming competition was recently opened to the public, with over 12,000 unique monikers submitted in a ten-day period, before the cheeky rhyming slang entry was selected. Adidas say they wanted to acknowledge the East End of London, which has become synonymous with the upcoming Games, and to also create some global intrigue.

Intrigue is one thing, but surely design is equally on Adidas’ mind after last year’s Jabulani debacle at the World Cup. That shiny number – famous for dipping on unsuspecting goalkeepers – was oddly constructed with just eight panels instead of the traditional 32. Apparently the architects were looking for a marketing angle instead of performance.

Such was the criticism of the last ball that scientists around the world later tested it and concluded its fewer panels and internal stitching made it as close to a perfect sphere as a ball has ever been. We can only hope Albert will be a little, well, fatter.

Imperfect spheres in sports like tennis, golf and cricket provide those games with their unique characteristics, where the trajectory and bounce, and players’ reactions to such movements, are part of the romance of each sport. The same is true of soccer, if not even more so.

That’s why The Albert needs to be dull and imperfect, true to the touch, instead of stealing the limelight like a right royal pain in the…

The new football’s design will remain under wraps until its official launch in spring 2012.

How the Mavs can beat the Heat

31 May

There were some interesting trends in LeBron James’ offensive strategy during the recent Eastern Conference Finals, some of which may provide opportunities for the Mavs these NBA Finals.

Firstly, consider that James likes to shoot from the left side of the floor, and in that mid-range area between about 15 and 21 feet. He’s prone to pulling up here but with far less poise than Michael Jordan, though his 46% field goal percentage these playoffs indicates otherwise. It’s misleading because James pulls up his average by bulldozing into the paint from time to time. The truth is, he likes the pocket on either side of the foul stripe perhaps more than he should because he often misses from there, especially at key moments in a game.

In Game 4 against the Bulls, for example, “The King” missed a number of mid-rangers in the third and fourth quarters and in overtime. Yes, he also made some, but not enough that Dallas should fear it. If the Mavs can utilize their zone defense by sitting back on perimeter ball handlers – and therefore James – they should be able to tempt the big fella into popping it from those  spots, preferably foul line extended.

This will have a secondary benefit for Dallas, playing to one of its major advantages – height. With Tyson Chandler anchoring the baseline defense, together with Nowitzki and Marion on the edges, Miami won’t have it so easy driving inside. So in protecting the key and asking the Heat to shoot 15-footers, Dallas plays a low risk brand of defense that should also better position them for rebounds. And defensive rebounding is certainly a task they’ll hope to execute well to have any chance of winning. Chicago, of course, struggled offensively against Miami, but Boozer, Deng and Noah owned the defensive glass, stifling second chance shots for the Heat’s Big Three.

James made a few more left side midrange jumpers in Game 5 of the Conference Finals, with more misses coming from the right. Ideally you’d like to see a greater number of clankers from the left if you’re Dallas because that means he’s preferring to drive that way. For what it’s worth, it’ll be easier to stop those dribble drives toward the hoop against his off hand.

Some questions have been raised about Jason Kidd’s ability to stay with Dwayne Wade, and those doubts may be fair given that Kidd’s motor has slowed. But realistically, who can defend Dwayne Wade one on one? As long as Kidd directs Wade around the key instead of allowing him through it, the Mavs should be able to rotate and help their point guard. Wade will both get his shots off and draw fouls, so it’s just not worth worrying about that. Both he and James each shot 11 free-throws in Game 5 against Chicago, and 17 charity shots between them in Game 4. The chief issue is containing them – being fleet-footed enough to push them into those mid-rangers and tough enough to bang them when they come inside. And don’t discount Kidd’s quick hands. He can still rattle ball handlers, especially ones like James who tend to fumble around the three-point line in the final minutes.

Offensively, Dallas need to simply hold the pedal down. Nowitzki has been on an attacking tear recently, not only shooting sharply but opening the floor for teammates like Kidd, Barea and Stojakovic to knock down threes. He went 10 of 17 for 29 points in Game 2 against the Thunder, 12 of 20 for 40 points in Game 4, then 8 of 15 for 26 points in Game 5. That’s Bird-like and we all know what Bird did supposedly great defenders during his Finals appearances.

look, this will be a tough out for Dallas, there’s no question of that. They’ll need to move the ball faster than the Miami defense’s feet and make the best of their superior shooting skills. Their size should also provide them a distinct advantage on the boards, especially at the defensive end.

Lastly, they have the smarter, more experienced Big Two in Nowitzki and Kidd. Sure their knees are creaking and at times they’ll need oxygen to keep up with their energetic opponents. But these guys have superb basketball IQs, won’t be overwhelmed by the occasion, and are quite possibly looking at their last hurrah. These three factors could go a long way to determining who’s still standing at series end.

How the Grizzlies made the NBA fun again

16 May

The Grizz’s stunning playoff run that ended Sunday against the slightly more experienced Oklahoma Thunder, threw us back to the basketball of our youth the way the DeLorean provided Marty a cooler version of his parents.

So here’s how the Grizzlies have made the NBA fun again:

They share the ball

It’s a novel idea, I know. On the break, the rock travels from sideline to sideline, or down the middle with a single bounce, or over the defense with a lob. Bottom line, it changes hands, and it’s so very refreshing.

They defend as a team

It’s not about attention-seeking spikes into the front row or two-armed roughhousing across the body of the scorer. They step into charges, scrap for loose balls and flush dribblers into turn overs. They crowd the key, disrupt the flow of perimeter attackers and jab their paws into the flight of passes. And it works because everyone buys in.

Their guards play guard, not hybrid ball

Mike Conley likes to shoot, sure. But he balances it by looking for open teammates, hitting the entry pass into the post if it’s there, or if not, bouncing it to the wing. He’s getting better at these decisions. Meanwhile, Vasquez is an effective slasher and Tony Allen’s size rattles opponents into submission. He also charges the floor and finishes with flair. Then there’s OJ Mayo who leaps into a fray and somehow leaves with points.

Z-bo is playing like Bird

Zach Randolph has, after years of frustration and futility, turned into a guy you can root for. He catches everything in the post. He spins by, steps past, and head fakes defenders with McHale-like pedigree. He drops in short corner fades, usually, when they’re most needed. And he forces the defender into committing and fouling when nothing else is working. His offensive onslaught these playoffs has been nothing short of Larry-esque and you can’t help but cheer.

The Memphis crowd love their guys

It’s a passionate and raucous clientele at Fed Ex Forum, even when the scoreline looks bleak. They wave towels, wear playoff white and yell their lungs out to a Memphis Beat. Who said this would be an unsuccessful NBA market?

They have energy

The Grizz never settle. They anticipate steals and visualize fast breaks. They scurry and scuttle plays, sapping the clock and the strength of their opponents. Perimeter defenders shift with urgency. Forwards throw themselves into the key, eager to collect a pass or find a rebound. It’s high energy, Red Bull-infused sort of stuff.

This team is likable

These big Bears play more like bats out of hell. They’re fast and furious, without Diesel’s extra bulk and Walker’s distracting looks. They have fun, and it all starts with Randolph being at ease and loving his job again.