The Geometries of Sports Branding: An Interview with Thomas O'Grady
Thomas O'Grady is Vice President and Creative Director for NBA
Entertainment. In his 12 year career with the National Basketball
Association, his creative services group has influenced a
generation of basketball fans as the NBA has expanded its global
reach and mastered the diversity of media channels.
Why is sports branding important?
The NBA is a 56-year-old brand. NBA commissioner David Stern calls it a “living brand.” It's a brand that, a lot like a cereal or a TV show, has seasons, with initiation points and finish points. We crescendo; there are highs and lows; there are periods of intense excitement, and periods that go slow and drag on. But sports are woven into the fabric of everyday life. That's what I love about basketball and sports in general—that it's a social currency.
If sports are so powerful in the global culture, why do we need design? If sports are valuable global currency alone, why do we need design today?
The game itself, when you break it down, is very tribal. My team is against your team and, after two hours, there is a winner, an end result. Design helps create that tribal experience. So your team is wearing red and my team is wearing blue; we each wear colors of our tribe or brand. It's very primitive. You see people paint their faces with the colors of the LA Lakers and it becomes an emotionally entangled thing. As sports brand architects, we have to keep that in mind. When we're developing a new identity for a team or creating a court for a team, we have to really become a part of that team.
Has the attitude always been that way? You mentioned that in the '70s the NBA didn't have creative services and it was up to the teams to develop their own identity. At what point, and why, did the NBA step in to manage?
I think it was two-fold. First, we needed consistency standards. As the game grew on television it became more important than ever before to identify who those players were, so good design came into play to make sure number sizes and names were big enough, that there was enough color contrast during a broadcast. In the '70s, with the drug movement and pop culture movement, aesthetics kind of went wild. Some of the game broadcasts got a little tough to see with all of the wild colors; it was difficult to follow the ball with so many things happening. We know best what a jersey will look like, that some of these new materials don't shine when they're being lit in a certain angle, and what way the broadcast will look the finest. We have people in place here making sure of that.
“The game of basketball itself is very tribal. Design helps create that tribal experience.”
Were you responsible for some of the uniform innovations?
Yes. The long pants came from Michael Jordan, which is a great story. Jordan would get tired because he played so many minutes when he was with the Bulls in the mid-'80s, so by the third quarter he would be exhausted. He would be doing a lot of this leaning over and catching his breath. Eventually he was starting to grab his pants, to hold onto them because he was exhausted. As time when on, you could see that by the end of the game his pants were long because he had just stretched them. He finally asked Champion, the uniform manufacturer, for more length in his shorts, so that he could hang onto his shorts. The next thing you know, the kids see the longer shorts and everybody's wearing longer shorts. He created a fashion without even knowing it. It went out like wildfire, because number 23 was doing it. Kids today wear those wristbands because Michael Jordan wore wristbands. There's a lot to be said for imitation as the sincerest form of flattery. So that's how the long shorts started.
When did the design of basketball began to influence the street fashion scene? Was that the beginning or did it happen before?
There was a trend in general in the late '80s, early '90s of the wider, looser jeans and Timberland boots. Our NBA sports brand got hot in the early '90s because of MTV. The rap community embraced a lot of the wider pants and shorts and a lot of these jerseys. Remember Kris Kross? They wore all that stuff, all backwards. So that got very hot and the urban market gravitated towards that. They were already wearing basketball stuff just because they liked to play basketball, but it wasn't part of the fashion category yet. Once the rappers really accepted that, they pushed from the sports arena into the fashion, and we saw business really increase in the early '90s to this place that we never thought it would end up—as part of the street culture. Our retail business really shot up. The basketball fans were really coming on. We had 10 years of Celtics/Lakers rivalries, Michael coming into the league in '84; there are some cataclysmic things that happened in '84 that made a major difference in our sport. David Stern took over the reins of the commissionership in 1984 for Larry O'Brien, so there's the first mechanism that took place. Michael gets drafted, and then around '85, Nike signs a deal with him. They began to do the Spike Lee Air Jordan, starting a series of things that would happen to push our sport into this pop-culture phenomenon. And the key reasons are Jordan, Nike and David Stern—those three alone had a lot of impact.
How long do you think it took to get your group to a point where you could really feel the impacts of your efforts?
The first time I knew we had done something special was in 1992 when we played the game in Orlando. The tickets were looking good and I knew the feel was right. It had this Disneyland look to it. The first time we realized the impact of what we were doing was when the game started and they had an angle from the scoreboard, which looks down on the logo, and all of the sudden there were ten of the greatest players in basketball standing on that logo. The fact that sports are viewed by so many millions of people makes our responsibility a huge one—it means that our work is going to be seen every day, in every way and in every medium by millions of people as well.
How do you see the next decade? Do see some new ruptures or opportunities coming up?
As the technology evolves, as garment attributes change, as the rules of the game evolve, designers will react to the changes—anywhere from what the main garment looks like to what the geometry of the court is. We've talked about changing our lane into a trapezoid shape to be able to force players even further away from the basket, to open up those lanes like we talked about, which is actually an International Court. But you have to understand that guys are getting taller, faster and quicker. Will that 95 by 50 foot court be able to contain these athletes in 10 years? Will the size of the players get so large and so athletic that the constraints of that size detract from the game? We can't predict. Genetics and natural evolution will tell us what happens there and we'll react accordingly. If the scores start going to 150 and these guys just drop the ball into the basket, then they'll have to raise the basket or make the rim smaller; these guys are too good now.
“The fact that sports are viewed by so many millions of people makes our responsibility a huge one. It means that our work is going to be seen every day, in every way and in every mediums by millions of people.”
Do you separate the live experience in the stadium and the televised experience, or do you try to think about them holistically? How do you approach it?
Television broadcasts to millions, so you shoot for the live broadcast. That is your red button. That's the register, those eyeballs—six million eyeballs—watching the game. So the first point you have to get right, even if nothing else is done right, is the broadcast. You have to nail that broadcast.
Do you know Shaq?
I have met him. He's as gregarious and friendly as you'd ever want to meet. He's a nice guy and as big as a doorway. He is huge. I tried to shake his hand and you can't physically shake his hand. You have to shake, like, three fingers. You put your hand out there and it just gets engulfed. He is such an unusual athlete; he's the size of a horse.
What was your involvement with the Women's Basketball Association?
The WNBA is a dream for a lot of us that have worked at the NBA. To be able to influence women's sports and prove to nonbelievers that a women's professional sports league could survive, we're feeling pretty good about ourselves right now. This is our sixth year and we've hit our expectations. It's a basketball league that just happens to feature women—that's the way we approach it. The same kind of care, attention to detail and branding go into the WNBA, if not more sometimes, because it's still a little bit in the development phase. We're not preaching only basketball, but women's basketball: that it's legitimate, that it's exciting, with sensational teamwork, potentially better than the NBA. If someone were to ask me my highlight for working for the NBA, it would be launching the WNBA. I still feel best about that.
What lessons do you think the business world could learn from what the NBA has done in the last 10 years?
Brand to people. People are human beings. They are motivated by emotion and by spontaneity. They like surprises and yet they love consistency.
First published in Gain 2.0: AIGA Journal of Design for the Network Economy.