ESPN has an interesting article about the branding of the Brooklyn Nets. Or rather, the BROOKLYN Nets. In this, their second year across the Hudson and East Rivers, New York City’s other NBA team continues to focus on its locale rather than its nickname as the source of its branding. Why? Well, it shouldn’t come as any surprise, but people like identifying with Brooklyn.
Everybody wants to be cool and Brooklyn, above all else, is that. Even better, it’s not Manhattan. Brooklyn is new. Manhattan is Old. Brooklyn is Girls. Manhattan is Sex and the City. Brooklyn is authentic. Manhattan is superficial. People perceive Brooklyn as the attractive, edgier version of a city with a cosmopolitan reality. Manhattan sold its soul for Disney-fication, bringing in safety and security and stagnation. It doesn’t matter if any of it is true or not. That’s the perception. That’s branding.
Yet the writer, Jake Appleman, writes “It would just be a shame, then, if the Nets’ 2014 on-court success, at times lost behind the ambiguity of a black-and-white promotional curtain and a cynical big-city news cycle, said goodbye before reaching the maximum number of basketball-inclined consumers.” Yet just a little bit before, he states, “The Nets’ play will unpredictably ebb and flow, and the basketball brand has less historical cache than the endlessly romanticized borough.” So, basketball should be the focus, but wins and losses naturally can’t sustain a brand?
On the contrary, I feel the ephemeral “other” of a brand’s identity should always remain the focus. If every team got its fair share of championships by year, we’d have to wait three decades for them all to get a shot. Sports teams fail most of the time, and all of the time if they are the Cubs. Besides, most money in modern sports comes not from tickets but from TV and merchandise which is all about image. Successful (read: profitable) sports teams focus on the image they present first and the product they put on the court second. So, how to create the image of sports cool?
Your team has to be an identity. This can come from lore, logos, or a locality that unites fans in a way beyond the time they spend in the stadium or in front of the TV. You want people remembering the good times spent with friends and family rather than the futility of times long past. The Red Sox can laugh about ’86 now because they built an empire in New England that sustained them from ’17 until ’04.
Above all else, this identity should not come from victories. Victories are shallow. Victories are fleeting. Once you win the Stanley Cup, just how much does it really affect your life? Like a drug, you need to get another and another and another until you’re leveraging future talent and past branding for just one more shot. Just ask the Mets how that went when they switched the dialogue from being loveable losers… er, longshots, to being Champions after three successful years in the late 90’s. The team is nearing bankruptcy. Attendance is way down. Their most successful manager of the 21st Century was run out of town on a rail because he didn’t win enough. Instilling in fans a faith based on wins works until they stop winning. Even the Yankees can’t do that.
Yet look at the primary branding of these two teams. Note the usage of the “NY” as a primary branding mechanism in Yankees and as a secondary attribute in for the Mets. Sure, the Yankees have a much longer, storied, and successful history than the Mets, but that doesn’t negate everything. The Yankees have sown their seeds across the world so well that someone who wears their cap may or may not be a fan of baseball or even the Yankees. It’s the cool factor of New York, of glamor, of history that gets people. You’d be hard-pressed to find such commitment to the Metropolitans.
Yet there was a time when the Mets were New York’s team. Just watch Ken Burn’s Baseball for more information, if not because every film of his is a work of art. The Mets outdrew the Yankees in the 60’s. They were the anti-matter to the win, win, win attitude that pervaded New York life. It persisted even when they won their two World Series because they–and by extension, their fans–bought into the underdog storyline. Once that changed, a precious bit of Mets-dom was lost forever.
The Nets have this now. They’re cool. They’re new. They have a great arena, which is cheaper and better than Madison Square Garden. They are trying to bring together an identity of the region and selling that. This can become crass, sure, but so far it’s been rather tastefully restrained, no doubt helped by the monochromatic color-scheme and minimalism.
Most of all, they have major league Brooklyn to themselves. Nobody else can touch that, save for possibly the kitsch appeal of the Brooklyn Cyclones. Remember how hot their merch was when that minor-league team first moved in? People were desperate to identify with their favorite borough. Yet sales persist even with the advent of a contender. Why? Because the Cyclones don’t waste their time marketing themselves as minor league champions (though they are). They are a part of Brooklyn life, like stoop drinking, house parties, hot dogs in hot summers, the Mermaid Parade, hipsterdom, and overrated HBO shows.
The Nets will do well to remember this lesson. They are a part of Brooklyn and not the other way around.