THE TRUE-LIFE LOVE TRIANGLE BETWEEN A BOROUGH, A BASKETBALL TEAM, AND AN AD AGENCY
WRITTEN BY: CHARLES CURTIS
DESIGN BY: JIM MEZEI
in the story of the Brooklyn Nets began in 1957, when the Brooklyn Dodgers’ Danny McDevitt put the finishing touches on a complete game shutout against the Pittsburgh Pirates on the final day of the final season the Dodgers would spend in Kings County. The most recent ended this past May with a desultory Game 7 loss in the first round of this year’s NBA playoffs to an overmatched Chicago Bulls team missing its best players. The Nets entered the summer with an aging roster, a bloated payroll and an absentee owner whose interests include kickboxing and collecting yachts, but only rarely basketball. They were, by many accounts, a mediocre NBA team, stocked with overpaid players and with low prospects for on-court improvement.
And then everything changed. On July 12th, 2013, the Boston Celtics agreed to ship future hall of famers Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett (along with Jason Terry) to the Nets, instantly transforming a franchise on the brink of mediocrity into one that’s ready to contend for a title. A week later, the team added versatile Russian forward Andrei Kirilenko, and the Nets will suddenly enter the fall season as a legitimate threat to the champions, the Miami Heat.

How it happened speaks not just to front-office acumen, but to the incredible power of image in today's NBA. Two years ago the Nets were a New Jersey punchline; now they’re a Brooklyn juggernaut. And that image, more than money, more than personnel, more than coaching – is what allowed them to land Garnett and Pierce. In today’s star-driven and salary-capped NBA, perception IS reality. And for the Nets, on-court success has been largely a result of branding, not the other way around. How the Nets marketing department managed to completely change the face of a franchise in two short years is one of the more amazing transformations in the history of sports.

On paper it sounds simple: move the team, change the logo, grow a beard and move into a loft and presto – BROOKLYN. In reality, re-branding a sports franchise is anything but easy –especially when the Nets new identity as Brooklyn’s Finest is basically the antithesis of the hapless franchise that as recently as 2009-10 won 12 games in an empty
arena next to I-95 in New Jersey. Brooklyn is
Jay-Z and Jonathan Lethem and artisanal mayonnaiseand Williamsburg. New Jersey is The NetsSenior Dancers.

But somehow the Nets have managed to pull it off, and in record time. It’s taken marketing nous, clever personnel moves, and remarkable sure-footedness in walking the tightrope between the sincerity sports fans crave and the ironic distance that’s become the borough’s calling card. Here we are, though. For the first time in 55 years, Brooklyn has a team, and it’s the Nets.
It’s not like it was a given. Nothing just automatically fits right into Brooklyn, a fact nobody understood better than New York native Steve Stoute, the man tapped to engineer the Nets rebranding. Stoute made his bones as a record executive, best known for producing Eminem’s debut album. But since 2004 he’s been running his own agency, Translation. His team understood from the beginning that gaining credibility with Brooklyn wasn’t going to be simple. Would they target the stroller-pushers in Park Slope? The hipster crowd in Williamsburg? The hip-hoppers in Bed-Stuy? Not to mention the swaths of original Brooklyn Dodgers fans, many of who still live in the borough and remember vividly how they felt when the Dodgers left in 1957.

It all began with the logo. Get it right and they’d have a far easier time convincing the borough that the Nets weren’t a second-class, downtrodden team from New Jersey carpet-bagging its way into New York – not to mention that a great logo would instantly kickstart a demand for merchandise. Unfortunately, this would be more complicated than slapping some new colors on the uniform, hiring a hipster as a mascot, and striding off into the sunset sipping PBRs in triumph. One thing Brooklyn knows is how to spot BS.

The logo needed to be hip, tasteful and symbolic of the entire borough. The answer came in the form of one letter.

B.
It's the letter worn by Jackie Robinson while stealing home, breaking down barriers not just in the city where he played, but also around the country. It's Dem Bums and "Wait 'til Next Year" and the Boys of Summer taking down the Yankees, finally. And it's the same iconic letter that vanished in 1957.

Its font is designed to echo old-fashioned subway signs and the logo from the Brooklyn Dodgers cap. But the "B" goes beyond sports. It represents the separatist pride of Brooklyn, a place unto itself rather than just Manhattan's neighbor. It’s a United Nations of neighborhoods, each with its own distinct ethnicity, culture, and makeup.

There’s a thin line between cleverly appropriating the past and looking like a rip-off artist, and in using the “B”straight from the Dodgers cap, the Nets ran the risk of being branded as poseurs. Translation addressed the problem by wrapping the old logo in a new paint job. “The new color palette was the first time in NBA history that black and white was approved,” said Joel Rodriguez, an account exec at Translation. “There’s no grey area in Brooklyn. It’s one-way or another; it’s a very authentic borough. [The logo] is clean-cut, it’s classy, it’s confident.”

Ultimately, Translation needed the logo to stand for Brooklyn the brand, a trademark strong enough to supersede the stink of the Nets lost years of mediocrity (in it's final 3 seasons in New Jersey, the team averaged just 19 wins a year). If the Nets brand had become associated with ineptitude (not to mention New Jersey), it made perfect sense for the team to hitch its wagon to Brooklyn. Grabbing the logo straight off the Dodgers cap was a nostalgic appeal to old-school Brooklynites; the black and white color scheme was a wink toward the borough’s modern identity as an arbiter of the avant-garde. But it would take a seal of approval from someone with Brooklyn street cred to infuse the logo with hipness. And that someone just happened to own a piece of the franchise.
It was a marriage made in sports ownership heaven. Developer Bruce Ratner partnered with hip-hop mogul JAY Z (nee Jay-Z)—who famously grew up in Brooklyn’s Marcy Avenue housing project—in 2004 to help eventually deliver the Nets to Brooklyn. All the rapper had to do was throw $1 million into the pot, and he’d be the famed face of the franchise that would eventually move to his old stomping grounds. The headlines would write themselves: “Local Rapper Does Good, Brings Pro Sports Back to Hometown.”

Nearly a decade later, there he was on stage at the Barclays Center, sporting a black “Brooklyn” jersey and Nets lid. It's hard to imagine a better branding vehicle—and the campaign to create a new Nets came with this very visible symbol. JAY Z’s share of the Nets grew even tinier when Russian billionaire playboy Mikhail Prokhorov bought the majority of the franchise, but his presence alone as arguably Brooklyn’s most famous son and rap’s biggest mogul was a huge boost.

JAY also knew how to weave in the history of Brooklyn with the logo and the franchise. “It was really a take off the old subway signs,” he said last year, via Complex.com. “If you look at the old subway signs, they were in black and white. It was that strong, beautiful, iconic black and white. I wanted to pick something that would stand the test of time and be here forever.”
Ironically, JAY Z won’t be around as owner to see if the branding effort was a long-term success. The rapper sold his shares in the Nets and moved on to a new passion—a sports agency. Is it a case of the rapper-mogul-icon feeling his job is done in moving the Nets to Brooklyn? Or are the Nets a toy he’s cast aside for the next shiny object? In his farewell statement, he claimed he would be a “Brooklyn Net forever.” But will fans see it that way?

“I think in the long run it hurts. How can it not?” says Adam Nisenson, vice president at marketing firm Active Imagination. “I believe a lot of the re-branding was the brand of JAY Z himself. He is bigger than the team.”

That’s not entirely true. The one thing that larger than the rapper is the borough from which
he sprung.
The billboards began popping up last spring with a message –the perfect tagline, short enough to fit into 140-character tweets, one that was a greeting with open arms, a hip wink and a reminder of who owned a piece of the franchise.

#HelloBrooklyn.

At the Barclays Center, an all-black sign with the outline of a shield read, “Brooklyn now has a home team.” At the Williamsburg Bridge: “Of course it’s personal.” The Manhattan Bridge had an even tougher message, a clear nod to the rival Knicks, with some pundits wondering if fans would convert: “Bridges will be crossed.” All of them had #HelloBrooklyn scrawled on them. (It gets even more meta: Hello Brooklyn is the name of a JAY Z song.)

“It made total sense,” explains Rodriguez. “It was a welcoming, an invitation to people who felt some kind of connection with the borough as more than just a geographical place on the map, but more of a mind state. People connect with Brooklyn globally, so we thought it made sense to leverage
Hello Brooklyn.”

It was also a nod to the overall strategy: simply associating with Brooklyn itself was like injecting HGH directly into the Nets’ brand. And the numbers back it up. Branding company BAV Consulting focused on the Nets’ move for a study with its database of 17,000 consumers from around the country, split into basketball fans versus those who didn’t characterize themselves as NBA enthusiasts. The group published its findings on Baylor University’s Sports Sponsorship & Sales Program’s site, where senior VP Anne Rivers asked, “What happens when a brand changes a core element?”
In this case, the Nets’ move from New Jersey to Brooklyn?
“What we found is that even just from adding the word ‘Brooklyn’ before they started playing, they became much more differentiated than they had been before. Among basketball fans, they became more relevant,” Rivers says.

Nisenson saw the “perfect branding storm”brewing in Brooklyn—a community looking to jump back into the pro sports world, the presence of JAY Z and the NBA, which he says “crosses all cultures and ethnic groups.” But Nisenson, whose company lists the Houston Texans, Detroit Tigers, and New York Yankees as past clients, also sees the franchise’s tapping into Brooklyn as part of a trend.

“It used to be about the players,” he says. “But the players come and go. They don’t necessarily always care about the city—and nothing against them, it’s a job and a business like it should be. But for the fans, the whole town, it’s what represents them. I think representing yourself as the city … it’s easier to get buy-in from your community.”

This was especially true for a community full of tastemakers that had undergone a recent renaissance. And that’s exactly why Translation and the Nets aligned themselves not just with Brooklyn the borough, but Brooklyn the brand as well.
"NISENSON SAW THE 'PERFECT BRANDING STORM' BREWING
IN BROOKLYN – A COMMUNITY LOOKING TO JUMP BACK INTO THE PRO SPORTS WORLD"
The brand new home of the Nets, the Barclays Center, is the biggest thing for miles as you come up from the Atlantic Avenue subway stop; it's a rust-colored, spacecraft-shaped monstrosity that gives both an antique and futuristic vibe simultaneously. Once inside, the Nets black-and-white motif is in full effect. The interior is covered in muted blacks, whites and grays. The video that plays right before the Nets do their player introductions is in black and white. Even the Center’s lighting fits right in—the court is lit brilliantly while the seats are left darkened.

It’s impossible to forget where the Nets now call home. Minutes before tip-off at a March 17 contest against the Atlanta Hawks, Brooklynite rapper MC Lyte reads a safety announcement in a video. And when the clock strikes zero, dreadlocked public address announcer David Diamante—according to the New Yorkerhis great-great grandfather owned a Fort Greene butcher shop—flips on his microphone and greets ticket-holders with, “Well, hello Brooklyn!” 

There’s even a chant Nets die-hards created themselves—not quite a Bronx cheer. It made its first appearance early in the first quarter in the game against the Hawks after Nets guard Keith Bogans hit a three. Prompted by the Jumbotron, fans called out, “Brooooooooklyn, Brooooooooklyn,” a hip-hop refrain from “Brooklyn” by borough native Fabolous. It was born in Atlantic City during a preseason game and given the stamp of approval from star point guard Deron Williams, who told The New York Daily News last year that he loved it.
Other than the banners reminding fans about the Nets ABA championships (1973-74 and 1975-76) and NBA Finals appearances (2001-02 and 2002-03), there isn’t much in the way of the team’s history on display. Walking through the Barclays Center to choose food options hailing from local eateries like Brooklyn Burger and Paisano’s Meat Market, fans stare at sepia-toned photos of the Smart Set Athletic Club, an independent African-American team from the borough from early last century. In the team’s program, emblazoned with “Insider” on the front of a Playbill-sized pamphlet handed out to every fan, there is an ad for t-shirts with the team’s logo and specific neighborhoods like Bed-Stuy and Brooklyn Heights. On the back: “My Borough is Thorough.” In other words, the Nets’ history is nearly all left behind in the Garden State.

Still, aspects of the move can’t be completely controlled by branding. Like, say, 50 mostly ignominious years and a rival smack dab in downtown Manhattan. “Generally, the Nets’ mark on New York sports history is predominantly negative, in that their successful moments were all too brief or simply went unnoticed in comparison to their big-market rival across the Hudson, while their rebuilding phases seemed to use up entire decades,” says Dave D’Alessandro, columnist for the Star-Ledger and a former Nets beat writer. “That’s not to say they didn’t have some brilliant episodes … But as the gaps in that timetable illustrate, they just came too infrequently to sustain a fan base and make them regionally relevant.” The icing on the proverbial cake for the franchise would be for the on-court product to kick their past to the curb and make a splash in their premiere way off-Broadway.
It all seemed to fall into place for the Nets from the first tip-off in the Barclays Center last fall, with an 11-4 start, two separate five-game win streaks, and the statement game to end all statement games—a 96-89 overtime victory over the Knicks in front of a gaggle of celebrities. Even Beyonce was in attendance (with her husband, JAY) that night.

Then, December arrived. By the 28th, the Nets had lost 10 of 13 and fired their head coach, Avery Johnson. Ironically, it took a New Jersey hero in former Seton Hall legend P.J. Carlesimo to right the ship. Suddenly, Brooklyn had a winning team: Williams’ early-season struggles disappeared, new acquisition Joe Johnson fit right in, and Brook Lopez continued his ascent to become one of the NBA’s best centers. At one point, the Nets even challenged the crosstown Knicks for the Atlantic Division crown. Though the attendance numbers will show Brooklyn finished 16th in the NBA with an average of 17,187 fans per game, it was their best finish since 2007 and a vast improvement from dead last in 2012.

But all that talent and support couldn’t get the Nets past the first round of the postseason. Even more disappointing, they lost to a Chicago Bulls squad missing a handful of its key players. Brooklynites thought they’d never hear the end of how 5-foot-9 journeyman Nate Robinson torched them for 34 points in a triple-overtime 142-134 loss in Game 4.

The adrenaline that fueled the Nets and their die-hards was staunched. Reality set in: maybe this team was a perpetual first-round also-ran. And in the NBA, that’s akin to purgatory.
"BROOKLYN FINISHED 16TH IN THE NBA WITHA AND AVERAGE OF 17,187 FANS PER GAME, IT WAS THEIR BEST FINISH SINCE 2007 AND A VAST IMPROVEMENT FROM DEAD LAST IN 2012."
Because the NBA stipulates the maximum annual amount that a player can receive in salary, all the top players in the league are paid basically the same. When it comes time to choose a team, money is rarely the deciding factor; players make decisions based on the coach, the other players, the ownership, the city and a host of other subtleties.

LeBron James and Chris Bosh went to the Miami Heat because of the city's atmosphere, and their desire to play together. Carmelo Anthony came to the New York Knicks because he wanted to play in New York. Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett came to the Nets in large part because of the image the team had painstakingly created during it's first year in Brooklyn.

"When you look at what they're trying to do … it brings excitement," said Pierce at his first press conference as a Net.

Everything the Nets had done over the past year, from the logo to the stadium to the billboards contributed to this moment; the team's marketing momentum was translating into actual improvement of the team. 

There's an old proverb about how if you wear a mask long enough, your face grows to fit it; the Nets have become winners simply by acting
like winners.
Many in basketball think that the additions of Garnett and Pierce, while helpful in the short term, will get the Nets into trouble in the long run. Both players are over 35, and while they are still effective, their best years are behind them. Sure, they'll be good next year, goes the argument, but what about the year after, when those players are a year older and still under contract?

But in some ways those pundits are missing the point. Next year, some of the biggest superstars in the league will be free agents, and they'll be looking to sign for the team that sells itself best.

Brooklyn is perhaps the first great example of a team rebranding to lure All-Star players. But if the rest of the NBA is paying attention, they won't be the last. The next team to do it won't be a franchise with a history of winning, like the Celtics or Lakers. It won't be a team in an easily marketable city, either. It will be the team looking for players who want to sign with them because of their image.

While most teams will focus on winning, some will sneakily re-imagine their franchise and prepare for the next offseason by forming an identity created from thin air.