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 🔥
— 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.
— 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 a far cry from his early days in Sacramento, but he does not miss the simplicity.
“Sure, maybe (there are) times you get frustrated, but I think it’s cool to have a little more of an identity,” he said. “I don’t think there’s anything wrong with it. Fads change, things change. You never know if you’ll go back to white uniforms at home. It’s cool to see different things.
“Before, you only saw the white uniforms at home. Now you get an opportunity to see all the uniforms that we have.”
The NBA isn’t the only league that has abandoned the home white jerseys as its core tenet. NHL franchises have flip-flopped during the league’s history and started wearing their dark sweaters at home again during the 2003-04 season. The NFL lets the home team decide its uniforms, and those teams rarely choose white anymore. Even the Los Angeles Lakers didn’t wear white at home until the early 2000s.
NBA teams began pushing alternate jerseys at home more frequently in the decade or so before Nike took over. Arena believes teams wore their white jerseys at home about 75 percent of the time by 2017.
Now, it is far less. The old uniform rules and expectations no longer apply. Arena does not see this as a wholesale abdication from league norms.
“It was already eroding,” he said. “We just put a paradigm around it. And again, eroding assumes that what it was was somewhat perfect, like some statue, and it was eroding to something imperfect. I would argue it was on the way to being flawed, and we’ve now made it perfect.”
The Association jersey is worn at the same frequency this season as it was during the 2017-18 season, Nike’s first year as the apparel distributor, but the split between home and road is stark. Teams wore their Association jerseys roughly 29 times per season in that first season under Nike, and an average of 17 games at home. This season, the Association jersey averaged 29 appearances per team but just roughly nine times at home.
About 22 percent of all games this season will feature a matchup of two teams each in a color jersey. Teams are scheduled to wear their City Edition jerseys about 14 times this season, with 11 of those at home.
The rules the league has put in place makes some jerseys a skeleton key. The Lakers’ gold Icon jersey can pair with anything, Arena said. Other jerseys — like the Indiana Pacers’ yellow, the Thunder’s orange and the Memphis Grizzlies’ light blue — are also versatile and don’t need to only be worn against white as a counterpoint.
The NBA, Arena said, obsesses “over this more than you can imagine.” Uniforms are a part of his life’s work, and he has been with the league for 26 years.
In that time, the league has undergone drastic changes, switched uniform providers several times and watched a new suite of logos and color schemes pop up. For most of that period, some basics never changed, but wearing white jerseys at home is no longer part of that foundation.
“I don’t know that we ever want to be so steadfast in rules and regulations and tradition and biases that we can’t step outside and listen to our teams and our fans,” Arena said. “I think what our teams are telling us was that our fans wanted to see these different uniforms at home, and they were maybe sick of seeing their team in white every single game for 41 games.
“The benefit, I guess you could say, is they get to see the wonderful colors of the 29 other teams come in. They can see the purple of the Lakers and the green of the Celtics and so forth. But they never got to see their team wearing their colors at home on their home floor, which is an incredible dynamic to see.”
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(Top photo of Jimmy Butler: Issac Baldizon / NBAE via Getty Images)