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The Disappearance of White Home Uniforms in the NBA

Every August, after the NBA releases its schedule for the upcoming season, Michael McCullough, the Miami Heat’s chief marketing officer, thinks about the next 82 games. He not only considers ticket sales and promotions but also sets a meeting with the team’s equipment manager and focuses on an essential part of his job: uniforms. Laying out the right jerseys used to be an easy exercise across the NBA. There were just two choices. When Rob Pimental, the Heat’s equipment manager and travel coordinator, began his career with the Sacramento Kings in the 1980s, it was just white and blue: white jerseys at home, dark ones on the road. What to wear didn’t demand a conversation. Today, it needs lots of meetings. It has become one of the benchmark choices a franchise can make each season. Over the last six-plus years, jerseys have grown to become not just merchandise but also part of an entire marketing ensemble, a diadem of that year’s commercial enterprise. Jerseys were once hidebound by convention — not always constant but at least consistent in color and place — but they are now ever-changing. Aesthetically, the NBA looks different from year to year as it introduces new uniforms with each season. It is exhilarating or exhausting, depending on whom you ask. The league is either running into grand ideas behind the creativity of its teams, or it is running away from convention and diluting its storied brands. The story of the league’s changeover can be told by the erosion of one old mainstay: the home white jersey. For decades, this was an NBA staple. Now, it is increasingly a rarity. The process to pick jerseys for each of the 1,230 NBA games each season seems simple: The home team picks its uniform first, and the road team chooses next. But it is exhaustingly complicated. What used to be mostly a binary decision tree is now complex. In a way, it begins years ahead of time. Teams start designing their latest City Edition jerseys with Nike two seasons ahead of their debut. “It’s like a jigsaw puzzle in many ways,” McCullough said. The makeover began with the 2017-18 season, when Nike took over the NBA’s on-court uniform and apparel business. Teams occasionally had asked the league to step away from the usual uniform split to introduce or highlight new alternate jerseys. That trend began in the late 1990s and has increased incrementally since. Still, teams needed permission from the league to do so. Nike brought on a four-uniform system: the Association, a white jersey; the Icon, a dark jersey; the Statement, an alternate jersey; and the City Edition, which changes annually and has no set color scheme. Some teams have a Classic jersey, too. The NBA streamlined the process. Christopher Arena, head of on-court and brand partnerships for the NBA, used to keep an Excel spreadsheet of every team’s uniform decision for each game, occasionally hunting them down to get their picks in or calling another team to adjust its choice to avoid a color clash. Then the NBA modernized. It debuted NBA LockerVision, a digital database where teams log in their uniforms weeks after the schedule is released. There are rules on how often a franchise must wear each jersey: Association and Icon must be worn at least 10 times during a season, Statement six times, City Edition and Classic three times. There are guardrails against colors matching too closely, though not all incidents have been avoided. After the Oklahoma City Thunder and Atlanta Hawks played each other in nearly matching red/orange hues in 2021, the league further barred teams from picking jerseys that are too similar. That upended the regular order. Where white jerseys used to be regularly worn at home, they are now more often seen on the road. Those August marketing meetings are an opportunity to lay out the best times to show off the latest City Edition jersey. Few teams have leaned in as much as the Miami Heat. In some ways, they are still taken by tradition. Miami’s red-and-black jersey has remained almost unchanged for decades. Every spring, Miami brings back its annual “White Hot” campaign, which has been in place since 2006. The organization wears its white uniforms at home in the playoffs and asks fans to wear white too. “That’s part of the whole lore of sports, that tradition,” McCullough said. “There’s room, I think, in sports to create new traditions. I like to think that’s what we’re doing, creating other opportunities for people to have another relationship with their team around what the players are wearing. And of course, it’s broadened out for us entire merchandise lines to support these uniforms and to support this second identity. It just becomes kind of who you are.” As much as those white jerseys mean to the organization, the last few years have allowed the Heat to experiment and debut new designs and color schemes. When McCullough gets the new schedule every summer, he begins to envision the rollout campaign for that year’s latest jersey. The Heat have created some of the most vibrant City Edition jerseys of the last decade. Their “Vice City” jerseys were a smash hit. The originals were white; subsequent editions have come in blue gale, fuchsia and black. This season, they wear black jerseys with “HEAT Culture” across the chest. The latest HEAT City Edition uniform is here 🔥 Last night — exclusively at @KaseyaCenter — ticket holders were among the first fans to shop the complete #HEATCulture collection.@MiamiHEAT // @AmericanAir — Miami HEAT (@MiamiHEAT) November 2, 2023 Most often, they wear them at home. The Heat has programmed those City Edition jerseys to be worn 19 times in Miami and just once on the road. Their Association uniforms — or what used to be known as the home whites — will be worn on the road 24 times. McCullough wants to make sure the City Edition uniforms get enough appearances in Miami to sink in with Heat fans. He wants the Heat to wear them around the holidays, when fans go shopping. He wants to create favorable environments to show them off and build affinity for them. “You’ve got this whole narrative you’ve woven around this special uniform that you can only do at home,” he said. “That you can’t do on the road.” The Heat can build a whole campaign around their latest jerseys by wearing them at home. They unveiled an alternate court in 2018-19 to match their Vice City jerseys and have had one each season since. The franchise can pick and choose when to wear the jerseys if the game is in Miami, so they can prioritize the right days. The Vice City design became its own kind of brand for the franchise. The Heat’s license plate in Vice City colors is the second-highest selling plate in the state, McCullough said, and is tops among all of Florida’s professional sports teams. The 5th and final VICE uniform. #ViceVersa @MiamiHEAT // @AmericanAir — Miami HEAT (@MiamiHEAT) December 1, 2020 “You look at any badass car in south Florida — and you know there’s a lot of badass cars — and they all have the Heat plate on them,” he said. “It is just a cool-looking plate. I’m sure a lot of those plates are not Heat fans. It’s just a badass-looking license plate to have on your car.” It is a symbol of the Heat’s successful effort. The planning goes across the organization. McCullough surveys Pimental and considers him an unofficial member of the marketing staff. Any uniform decisions are run by him. Pimental’s job is vast. Whenever the Heat choose their road jerseys, they must consider how it will affect travel. He had to learn how to re-pack for trips after Nike took over in 2017 because of the new possibilities. For each road trip, the Heat bring a game set of each uniform and a backup set, as well as a few blanks; that’s 40-45 uniforms in each color. If they intend to wear two different uniforms on a trip, they could bring almost 90 different sets. Then there is everything else: the warmups, the sneakers, the tights, the socks, the practice gear. In all, Pimental said his team and the training staff bring about 3,000 pounds of equipment on road trips. He calls it “a traveling circus.” It’s…


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