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How the NBA’s Nets leaned into Brooklyn

Brooklyn’s gentrification was well under way in 2012, when Russian billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov brought the nets back to New York for the first time since 1977.

Conscious of the commercial might of the Knicks over in Manhattan – and saddled with a team unlikely to have a shot at the championship – Brooklyn Sports and Entertainment, the new ownership group of the Nets, set out to borrow some of the borough’s hipster appeal.

“It was a deliberate decision to lean into Brooklyn like that,” says Brett Yormark, the Nets’ chief executive. Every decision, down to granular details like the choice of facade for the team’s Barclays Center home arena, was taken with the spirit of Brooklyn in mind.

“The original architect of the Barclays Centre was Frank Gehry, and the original design was very anti-Brooklyn,” says Yormark, who spoke to SportBusiness during Leaders Week New York. “When 2008 came about, the financial crisis, we had to pivot, like most businesses. We realised we could no longer afford to work with the ‘starchitect’, so we had to get back to the basics. And we realised we weren’t taking advantage of ‘brand Brooklyn’, so we decided to let the architecture speak to Brooklyn. That’s where the weathered steel came in, because that speaks to the grittiness and strength of the borough.”

Brand Brooklyn

“We have played to Brooklyn in every way possible, and it’s truly our differentiator in the market,” he says. “Everything connects to brand Brooklyn.

“When we built the brand BSE, Nets, Barclays Center, and some of the brands that have followed since, we kept in mind the inspiration of Brooklyn. It’s the melting pot for a lot of different industries, lots of different people. Ninety-four different languages are spoken in the borough. It gives us a headstart in diversifying our audience and connecting with totally different demographics than traditionally have been fans of sport.”

The Nets brought in street food vendors from across Brooklyn – 57 in total – to develop that local connection, while Yormark boasts that 80 per cent of the employees within the Barclays Center are from the borough. He contrasts this embrace of the area with the NHL’s New York Islanders, currently joint-occupants of the Barclays Center alongside the Nets. Having relocated to Brooklyn from Long Island in 2015, the Islanders have already announced plans to move back, having failed to extract the same love from the borough – Islanders’ attendances were the lowest in the NHL in the 2017/18 season, as new fans failed to turn up and old fans declined to travel. “They were like a rent-a-team,” says Yormark. “The Islanders never really embraced Brooklyn – or Brooklyn never really embraced the team.”

Long considered a haven for artists and creatives, the most obvious influence of Brooklyn on the Nets’ commercial strategy has been in their attempts to be as much a “lifestyle brand”, in Yormark’s words, as a sports team. “When you think of Brooklyn, you think of music, fashion, design, entertainment… and then, maybe, sports,” he adds. The latter part of the Brooklyn Sports and Entertainment title is crucial to the overall brand. The Barclays Center also plays host to music concerts, while BSE also operates three other venues across New York City, with the management team overseeing both sides of the business. Popular figures from across the world of entertainment, such as hip-hop star and noted Brooklynite Jay-Z, who is also a minority stakeholder in the team, helped to promote the Nets on their return to New York.

“For us it was connecting with as many different demographics as possible to infuse that Brooklyn Nets brand, and music was one way we were doing it,” says Yormark. “Fans became our fans maybe because of our relationship with Jay-Z, or the black and white colour palette, or the fact that we were Brooklyn, not necessarily because we were a good team on the court. We did position ourselves as a lifestyle brand first which gave us an opportunity to infuse the brand in lots of different places, music being the primary place.”

While this kind of cross-marketing has become increasingly common in recent years, Yormark believes BSE’s approach has been “better than most” because of the way it “truly connects sports and entertainment in a very authentic way”.

“You gotta do it in an authentic way,” he says. “Thankfully at that time Jay was a partner of ours, and we were able to take that Nets brand into pop culture. Jay was authentic, he was part of our ecosystem, so to speak, he’s a fan of the team and he’s from the area, so it was very natural for us to extend the Nets brand through Jay-Z.  Others have tried to do it and it comes across as a bit more forced or commercial, but for where we were, it really was very natural and made a lot of sense. We’ve been building on that ever since.”

Local brand, global ambition

As part of that building process, BSE recently confirmed its intention to expand internationally. An advisory board has been created in the UK, with its first task being to identify venues in London for BSE to find a London base, and a new international brand identity, BSE Global, was launched a few weeks later. Yormark will co-chair the advisory board and serve as the chief executive of BSE Global.

While the initial venture into London will focus first on the entertainment side, Yormark describes the move as “an extension of what we’re doing in North America”, and reiterates that BSE does not see sport and entertainment as mutually exclusive. “It’s more than just the team,” he says. “It’s also expanding the entertainment side of our business there, so that was the impetus for expanding our advisory board into the UK, just to further seed our brand, team and venues.” Their activities in one will help to promote the other, by “engaging with people early and often, so that people recognise the Barclays Center brand and see it as a destination in itself.” The company is “close” to agreeing a deal to bring a London music venue into its fold, according to Yormark, though no announcement has yet been made.

The move will also bring the Barclays partnership to the fore, and Yormark is hoping that it will help to strengthen those ties. While the bank operates internationally, including in the Nets’ home country, it is in its UK base where it has the strongest presence. “London has an incredible amount of upside for us,” says Yormark. “The fact that Barclays is on every corner, literally, in the UK, gives us an incredible advantage that we’ve never tapped into. We need to do that and activate and leverage the Barclays relationship.”

Further international forays are expected into China, thanks to the recent purchase of a 49 per cent stake in the Nets by Joseph Tsai, the executive vice-chairman of the Alibaba Group. BSE will make a much stronger play of its sporting portfolio in China, a territory where basketball is hugely popular. Having already played at London’s O2 Arena on three occasions, Yormark expects to take the side to China at some point in the near future, where he says “there is an incredible appetite to touch and feel the Brooklyn Nets”.

Tsai’s investment came in late 2017, and while Yormark says it is still “too early to tell” what affect it will have in the long term, he notes that “just having Alibaba as a potential resource is terrific”.

“Being able to tap into Joe’s network in China and his influence there I think could be very helpful to us,” he adds. “It’ll probably unfold more in the coming months, but we’re working with [the NBA] right now on creating some promotional opportunities in China, whether it’s raising my hand to play there for the China games or even activating potentially our G-League team there. We’re exploring lots of different options to infuse our brand in China.”

Yormark believes BSE has built a “truly global look, feel and flavour to the brand” over the past few years. The challenge going forward will be to balance their international aspirations with the resolutely Brooklyn image they continue to build at home.

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