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The NBA’s Partnership with Nike Is Giving Fans More Reasons to Buy Gear

Even a 72-year-old sports league needs a facelift time from time.

At WWD’s Men’s Style event last week, Lisa Piken Koper, senior vice president of merchandising partnership for the NBA, shared how the league’s new partnership with Nike is adding a fresh perspective to its merchandising strategy and design.

Break traditions

Last season, Nike replaced Adidas as the NBA’s official on-court apparel provider. Immediately, the sports behemoth challenged the league to break out of old habits, and in the process, make a more commercially viable apparel collection.

To start, Piken Koper said the brand encouraged the league to end its tradition of having home teams wear white uniforms.

“They said you have all these amazing colors and beautiful uniforms, why not show them to the people who support the team the most, the hometown fan,” she said.

And with more kits than just “home” and “away,” Nike elevated NBA’s branding by renaming the uniform designs as “editions.” That single move has led to more merchandising opportunities, Piken Koper said, including the very successful City Edition which features team logos that are redesigned through a hyper local lens.

Local to global

With 150 million people worldwide playing basketball, and the sport being only second to soccer internationally, the NBA sees enormous potential to grow its footprint. “International is a huge focus and priority for us,” Piken Koper said. “We’re seeing most of our growth come from outside of the U.S.”

The first steps, she added, are to grow the game, get participation and build a fan base. The NBA is doing this by bringing games to China, France, Mexico, India and Japan this season.

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The league also has 300 NBA brand stores across the globe, and each region is proving to have its own buying habits, which allow the league to have a year-round merchandising strategy. For example, the holidays are a big sales season in the U.S., but Piken Koper said Chinese consumers spend on NBA merchandise in the summer because they want tank tops and shorts.

What’s selling

LeBron James and Stephen Curry continue to be the best-selling jerseys, but Piken Koper said the league is seeing more diversity. Oklahoma City Thunder’s Russell Westbrook and Houston Rockets’ James Harden are picking up momentum, as well as players from the Philadelphia 76ers, which Piken Koper said is starting to be relevant again.

Jerseys are the go-to for a hardcore fan, but hoodies, T-shirts and headwear are all important categories, too. A new item Nike introduced as part of the official warm-up uniform, the Therma Flex Showtime hoodie, is has shown crossover appeal with fans.

“It’s an item that has been really well received by the players on the court, but also translates to being a wearable item,” Piken Koper said. “That has been the highlight of the collection so far.”