I admit to having a somewhat unusual preoccupation with logos, fashion and colorways so as a basketball fan I’m naturally interested in the branding of NBA teams. From time to time I’ve come across rankings of the ‘best’ and ‘worst’ uniforms on popular sports websites, but in most cases they amounted to little more than a subjective list of the author’s personal preferences, which I rarely agreed with. I looked for more objective assessments which explained why this logo was good or that uniform was bad but having found none, I decided to create one myself. What began as my attempt to devise a more rational ranking system based on objective criteria evolved into a larger analysis of the branding of each NBA team.
Brand vs. Branding
Let us begin by defining the terms brand and branding. Brand is the public perception or reputation of an organization; it is what people think, believe or feel about the organization, its values and the product it puts out. At its highest level, brand could be described as cultural cache. Branding is the sum of the efforts made by an organization to create and manage its public image; it is the means with which an organization attempts to connect with the world around it and convey its identity.
A great number of variables can affect an organization’s brand. With respect to professional sports, the team’s geographic location, star power and performance—not only in a given season, but over time—greatly influence the perception of the franchise in the eyes of sports fans and can easily trump lackluster branding. After all, everyone loves a winner. The Boston Celtics, Chicago Bulls and Los Angeles Lakers all have visual identities dating back to the 60’s and 70’s but their multiple championships still translate into merchandise sales on par with the top teams of today ¹. On the other hand, organizations with poor on-court performance and a legacy of losing can generate excitement and a renewed sense of loyalty by executing a brand reboot or a complete rebrand. The identity updates by the Brooklyn Nets in 2012 and Charlotte Hornets in 2014 are good examples. The Brooklyn Nets sold more merchandise in one day than the New Jersey Nets did in one season² while the Charlotte Hornets increased their merchandise sales 77% over the Charlotte Bobcats³.
Branding for a sports franchise begins with the team’s nickname. The organization then creates a visual identity, picking team colors and designing logos and uniforms. Finally, the team attempts to connect with the local community and larger world via marketing, advertising and outreach.
I will examine the essential aspects of branding for all 30 NBA teams, specifically those areas such as the team nickname and visual identity which are under the direct control of each franchise’s front office and can be changed to enhance the organization’s appeal on a local, national or even global level. Other areas, like marketing and community outreach, or an analysis of the brand itself, are beyond the scope of this work, as it would require polling, focus groups, and a team of statisticians.
The aim of this assessment is to provide a more objective framework to examine the current branding efforts of each organization and from that examination, reach insights which could be used to advise future branding efforts for sports or other types of organizations.
Each assessment begins with an overview of the franchise, including its foundation, any relocations and name changes, and a history of the organization’s visual identity. The examination of the team’s current branding is broken down into five areas: logo(s), uniforms, relevance, uniqueness and consistency with each category rated between 0 and 5 points for a total possible score of 25.
Following each assessment are a list of points to improve. These are suggestions aimed at increasing the team’s score relative to the criteria for this assessment.
The team’s nickname will be primarily assessed on how relevant it is to the locality it represents. The team’s color scheme, logos and uniforms will also be judged on relevance as well as uniqueness and consistency. But the primary criteria for evaluating the visual identity will be how clean, simple and modern the design is.
Clean and Simple
Logos that use too many colors and rely on overly complicated arrangements or other attention-grabbing techniques become an eyesore that may overwhelm and repulse the viewer.
The primary purpose of team uniforms is to distinguish one team from the other, and help the players, officials and spectators identify who is who. Overly complicated uniforms and wild colors should be avoided since they may distract from the game itself.
Modern vs. Traditional
Sports fans can roughly be divided into two camps: one group favors a traditional look while the other prefers modern designs. Basketball has generally been a more cutting-edge sport in terms of design and fashion than more traditional sports like baseball and football. While baseball and football teams may risk alienating fans with more modern branding, basketball teams tend to get more leeway.
A modern uniform is one that could not have been manufactured in the past due to technological limitations or budgetary considerations. It uses not only modern fabrics and production techniques but also a modern aesthetic that distances it from older styles. Traditional basketball uniforms have crew necks with striped trim around the collar and arm holes and minimal decoration aside from the team name and player number.
A modern logo is a clean and simple vector image rendered by illustration software rather than drawn crudely by hand. It takes a minimalist approach, using few colors, negative space and other techniques to create a simple yet effective design that quietly and effectively conveys its meaning to the viewer.
The visual identity should pushing the brand forward. Uniforms and logos that look like they were designed two or more decades in the past will receive lower scores than more contemporary designs.
I believe modern design is important for both philosophical and aesthetic reasons. Organizations that break with the past and embrace modern design show that they are forward thinking and willing to innovate. At the end of the day, sports franchises are businesses and any business that fails to innovate will find it difficult to succeed or possibly even survive. Additionally, teams that continue wearing outdated uniform designs always look like they are playing in throwback uniforms. Wearing throwbacks is fine so long as both teams coordinate and wear styles from the same era but the juxtaposition of the old-fashioned with the modern is visually distracting and should be discouraged.
While I believe that modern design is better, it does not follow that every team with a long-used visual identity should scrap it in the name of modernization. Tradition must be respected but subtle changes can be made to classic designs in order to bring them into the modern era.
Every team has a primary logo comprised of an illustration and some representation of the team name, usually in the form of a stylized wordmark. Many teams use part or all of the illustrated portion minus the name or wordmark, known as a partial primary logo, for occasions where simplicity is preferred. Most teams also have secondary or alternate logos which are generally simpler than and different in design from the primary. The terms secondary and alternate are often used interchangeably and the terms used in this assessment are based on the best available information regarding each team’s own usage.
Currently, the NBA has a rule requiring at least one of the team’s logos to incorporate a basketball. Logos that were designed before this requirement are exempt.
Each team’s logos will be evaluated not only on how clean, simple and modern they are but also how well-balanced they are in terms of color and design. Teams with clean, simple, modern logos that are well-balanced in terms of color and layout will be given a high score. Primary logos will be weighted more heavily than secondary or alternates.
Every team has at least two uniform sets, one for home games and one for away games. The home uniforms are generally white while the road uniforms are always one of the team colors. Most teams also have one or two alternate uniforms, which are generally one of the team’s secondary or accent colors. Many teams now also have special alternate uniforms, called pride uniforms, which honor the team’s history or local culture and are a direct extension of the team’s branding. It should be noted that some alternate uniforms, such as the Portland Trail Blazers’ ‘Rip City’ uniforms, predate the pride uniform program and may be retroactively labeled as such.
As a general rule, this assessment will not consider uniforms which are only worn for special occasions like Christmas, St. Patrick’s Day, Chinese New Year, Noches Latina Latin Heritage Nights or Hoops for Troops military appreciation events.
Like the logos, the uniforms will be judged on how clean, simple, modern and well-balanced they are. Teams with clean, simple, modern uniforms that are well-balanced in terms of color and layout will be given a high score. The primary road uniform will be weighted more heavily than the home uniform or alternates.
Relevance is a measure of how meaningful the team’s nickname and visual identity is to the locality it represents. This is important because fans want something to relate to or identify with and symbolic names, colors, etc. give people a way to connect with their state, hometown or current location.
A high score will be given for a name, color scheme and logos that reflect the history and culture of the city, state or region they represent. Generic names that could apply to any location get a lower grade while teams which have relocated but kept their original name generally get a low score in this category. The nickname and logo design will be weighted more heavily than the color scheme or uniform design.
One of the most important aspects of branding is differentiating yourself from the competition. A team’s logo and uniform constitute the visible representation of the brand which connects with the viewer to create his or her first impression. As such the visual identity should have a unique design that sets it apart from the crowd. Teams with a generic look or which too closely resemble one or more other teams will be given a low score while those with distinctive looks will be given a high score. The main considerations will center around color scheme, typeface and logo presentation.
Below is a breakdown of the current lineup of primary road uniforms:
- Blue is the most common color, with 9 regular and 4 navy uniforms for a total of 13.
- Red is the second most popular color with 6 uniforms, including Cleveland’s maroon uniform.
- Black comes in third place with 5 uniforms.
- Purple is the fourth most popular with 4 uniforms.
- Green is the least used color with only 2 uniforms.
The most popular colors for alternate uniforms are Black (8), Red (5) and Blue (5) while the most popular colors for pride uniforms are Gray (4) and Black (3).
Given this, teams with blue and red color schemes will generally receive lower scores while the teams wearing green would get a higher score.
Teams which use a generic varsity block typeface on their uniforms will be given a lower score while teams that have commissioned a custom typeface for their visual identity will get a higher score.
There are currently eight teams using roundel logos, displayed above in the order which they were unveiled. Of these, only four (Raptors, Wizards, Sixers & Hawks) are used as primary logos; the rest are used as secondary logos. Teams adopting roundel logos have made themselves less unique relative to other teams and will lose points accordingly.
Inconsistent design language can create confusion and muddle the brand. Consistency is key to effectively communicating the brand to its audience. Teams which use their colors in a consistent manner and apply the same typeface across all applications will receive a high score while teams who do not will receive a lower score. Teams who use their logo wordmark on their uniforms will be given a higher score than teams who use, for example, an unrelated typeface.
In addition to the criteria established above, each team’s score will be weighted relative to the organization’s previous visual identity. Teams that have cleaned up, simplified and modernized their logos and uniforms will be rewarded while teams that have gone retro will be penalized. Teams whose most recent visual identity update has enhanced or diminished their relevance, uniqueness or consistency relative to their previous branding scheme will be similarly weighted. When one or more teams end up with the same total score, the tie will be broken first by looking at which team has a higher combined logo and uniform score, and if that is also the same, the consistency score will be the tie-breaker.
- Visual identity: all of the elements that create the look of a team, including the logo, uniforms, color scheme and typeface
- Jersey: the upper, tank top portion of the uniform
- Uniform: the jersey plus the shorts
- Fauxback: a portmanteau of ‘faux’ and ‘throwback’ meaning a uniform designed to look like it was originally created during a previous era
- Arced: The letters in the wordmark are positioned along the contour of a curved path but each letter remains straight relative to the path. Arced wordmarks have a rainbow-like appearance.
- Arched: The tops and bottoms of the letters in a word follow the contour of a curved path but the sides of the each letter remain vertically-oriented. The wordmark resembles an arched doorway.
- Geographic indicator: The name of the geographic location the team represents, generally a city or state name, but can also be a regional name or state nickname.
- Rebrand: In the context of this assessment, the term is used to indicate a name change, either in terms of the geographic indicator or the team nickname. Changes to the visual identity are considered to be an update.
Click on the team logo or name below to view a detailed analysis of each team:
|1||San Antonio Spurs||4.5||4.0||4.5||4.0||4.5||21.5|
|7||New Orleans Pelicans||3.5||3.5||5.0||2.5||5.0||19.5|
|8||Portland Trail Blazers||4.0||4.0||4.0||3.0||4.0||19.0|
|12||Golden State Warriors||4.0||5.0||2.0||3.5||3.5||18.0|
|17||Los Angeles Lakers||3.0||4.0||1.0||5.0||3.0||16.0|
|25||New York Knicks||3.5||1.0||5.0||2.5||2.5||14.5|
|29||Los Angeles Clippers||1.0||1.0||0.5||2.5||4.0||9.0|
|30||Oklahoma City Thunder||1.0||1.0||1.5||1.0||2.5||7.0|
The National Basketball Association (NBA) was established in 1949 when the National Basketball League (NBL), founded in 1946, merged with its rival, the Basketball Association of America (BAA). The NBA has grown from the United States’ premiere basketball league into a global brand and has helped transform the sport of basketball into one of the world’s most popular.
Special thanks to Chris Creamer (sportslogos.net), Conrad Burry (conradburry.com) and Jordi Kodrinsky (Twitter / Flickr) for the logo and uniform images used throughout this work. Other images have been taken from individual team websites or Twitter feeds.
All writings contained herein are copyright ©2015 Brian F. Sanford. All intellectual property including but not limited to names, logos and uniforms are properties of the National Basketball Association, its member teams, ownership groups and/or organizations. All images are used for noncommercial educational purposes. No copyright infringement is intended.