Hip-hop and sports have dovetailed naturally since hip-hop’s birth in the 1970s. Basketball, in particular, has been the sport of choice for rappers. Ever since Kurtis Blow fanatically chanted “Basketball is my favorite sport, I like the way they dribble up and down the court,” in his 1984 hit “Basketball,” the game has become an easy name-check for rappers (I can’t remember the last time at least one mixtape or album didn’t have at least ONE basketball-related metaphor or punchline).
Basketball and hip-hop are both dominated by young African-American men from urban environments, making it no surprise that the two frequently cross-paths. There’s a confluence between them in the rhymes, friendships, and culture of the people operating within each industry, and it’s certainly something that businessmen have taken advantage of.
Rappers wear the shoes of Jordan, LeBron, Kobe, and Durant for fashion, pushing Nike Basketball’s sales. Kanye West, who has a design/endorsement contract with Nike, has been known to make any sneaker he wears a hot item. He’s the world’s Trendsetter-In-Chief. ‘Ye recently wore the Nike Air Flight ’89 basketball sneaker while out on a date with Kim Kardashian in London. The next day, the shoe, which had sold poorly since it’s release, had sold out on Nike’s website. Did Nike give Kanye a pair to wear in public so they could clear stock? Kanye would probably deny it and say something along the lines of, “Every outfit I wear is art. It’s, it’s, it’s an expression of me, and I would never let, uh, such high-level art—of me be corrupted.” *theoretically says the man who’s causing streetwear
worldwide chaos with his painfully limited, self-designed, $245 Nike Air Yeezy II. Nike Basketball is smart enough to put their biggest celebrity (yes, bigger than Jordan) at the forefront of their street and viral marketing efforts. Nike Basketball commonly gives rappers pairs of sneakers in advance of a release so they can be Instagrammed, photographed, and publicly seen in them to increase hype.
The NBA, however, rarely takes advantage of the relationship between their sport and hip-hop. Their players pal around with rappers, while rappers frequent court-side seats at games, and publicly root for their teams on Twitter, Facebook, and in their lyrics. But has the NBA ever partnered with a rapper for commercial reasons? There’s one exception (getting to that), but David Stern’s NBA will probably never be caught dead holding the meaty hands of Rick Ross or DJ Khaled. After 2004’s Malice at the Palace, Stern’s NBA has sanitized itself of anything remotely criminal (Gilbert Arenas’s 2009-10 gun suspension was certainly in the spirit of the Palace). It doesn’t help that much of popular hip-hop is full of ex-cons, and rappers with a charge, spitting lyrics concerning matters that Stern would find offensive. He even banned “chains” from being worn into the arena by players—a fashion trend made popular by the hip-hop community.
Despite Stern’s resentment of the stereotypical hip-hop image, the NBA has been infiltrated by one rapper. Where there’s a D-Will, there’s a Jay. Jay-Z is a minority owner of the newly christened Brooklyn Nets—a position that makes him hip-hop’s most powerful man in the NBA. The former New Jersey Nets, one of the NBA’s most beleaguered franchises, has been reborn by their move. Although the Nets calculated that the “Nets” brand equity (all those memorable Finals losses in the sports-forsaken Meadowlands must’ve been worth so much) was too valuable to rename the team after their Brooklyn move, the organization has begun to totally rebrand the team, with hip-hop’s real image—not the one in Stern’s mind—as the guiding force.
Hip-hop takes on the appearance of whomever’s creating it. If a hustler from Philadelphia raps about spending money and trapping, that’s hip-hop. If a pyro from Los Angeles raps with his friends about doing hard drugs and killing Bruno Mars, that’s hip-hop. The versatility of the genre is what makes it so universally appealing. What has always driven the genre, topically and culturally, is one’s sense of self. The need to boast and project coolness onto listeners is something that all rappers have in common—from the first MCs at 1970s Bronx house parties to rappers just picking up the mic today—they all want to talk about themselves. Who they sleep with, what they wear, who/what they support, what they buy, what they regularly do or don’t do. They brand themselves just as much as athletes do. Ice Cube is seen as a loud thug, so he gets to yell at Coors Light cans in commercials. Diddy knows luxury and a good time, so he’s the face of Ciroc vodka. Jay-Z is the epitome of cool: he’s a properly dressed, self-made rap legend who went from drug dealing to running corporations, who also happens to be married to our generation’s greatest sex symbol. Oh, and he’s a family man now too thanks to little Blue Ivy.
Here’s where the Brooklyn part of the Nets come in. The boroughs most famous son, Jay-Z, is effectively the face of the franchise (sorry Deron Williams
and Dwight Howard). Jay-Z is taking his superstar coolness and making what was one of the lamest franchises in the NBA into a cool team to root for. Brooklyn is the fourth largest city in the United States (just pretend that New York City never annexed it for a moment), and is undergoing a major youth movement. Around New York City, Brooklyn is perceived as the place to be. Hipsters (“hipsters” in the sense of anyone who’s young, independently dressed, and a follower of culture) reign supreme, helping give Brooklyn a certain aura to it. There’s a reason that when DJs and MCs shout the obligatory “Is Brooklyn in the house?” or most likely, “WHERE BROOKLYN AT?” *dodges a Flex bomb* that EVERYONE at the concert is suddenly from Brooklyn. (Hell, I’m Manhattan born and New Jersey raised but I pretend that I’m from Brooklyn at those moments. It just feels good to be a part of something.)
With the premiere celebrity/rapper on the planet, the coolest city in the United States, and a young fan base (56% of NBA fans are from either Generation X or Y), the Nets are all hip-hop. Their logo speaks to hip-hop fans even more. Hip-hop heads are also into fashion—rappers talk about how well they dress and what brands they wear constantly, so fans naturally follow suit and style up.
The new Nets logo has been highly criticized for being too boring, too plain, and just straight-up ugly. But what really puts people off is that doesn’t look like most NBA logos. While every NBA logo is a gaudy, overly-graphic, corny, colorful cartoon, the new Nets logo looks more like a streetwear brand’s symbol. It’s simple, clean, classic design, and colors make it look more like an urban lifestyle brand than an NBA logo. More importantly, the black and white coloring makes it highly fashionable—their apparel goes with anything. The Nets have made the first lines of NBA apparel that can legitimately be “dressed up” to go out in. Not surprising, considering it’s designer, Jay-Z, started his own clothing company in Rocawear, which went on to do over $700 million in annual sales.
It makes more sense to have Nets gear sold at some small shop in SoHo than the NBA store in midtown. Their logo is by far their biggest branding achievement, and their apparel will sell through the roof. After all, what casual fan wants to root for a team if they can’t look good doing it? Getting casual, would-be NBA fans to don a Nets snapback is what the organization wants, and what it will get. (Another personal experience aside: the day after the New York Knicks were able to beat the Miami Heat at Madison Square Garden, I saw more people wearing new Nets gear in the street than Knicks gear. The Knicks had just won their first playoff game in over a decade, and no fans could be seen basking in their reflective glory. Everyone wanted to be a Nets fan, because they looked cooler being one, even though the Knicks were the toast of the town. It feels good being a part of something new, cool, and revolutionary.)
The Nets and their revitalized franchise couldn’t be more hip-hop. They’ve got hip-hop’s #1 borough and rapper, hip-hop’s youthful audience, and hip-hop’s street savvy style. Although the music industry is in the tank, hip-hop’s branding strategies couldn’t be more valuable. Just don’t tell David Stern, or he might send the Nets back to New Jersey.
Follow Justin on Twitter @jblock49