I’m from Charlotte, NC. Born and raised. 1988 was a big year for my hometown. Even though I was pretty young at the time, I knew something major was happening. Charlotte got its first major sports team, the NBA Charlotte Hornets expansion team, and the city was changed forever. People LOVED the Hornets, from the outset. Known as the “hornet’s nest” of rebellion during the Revolutionary War, Charlotte was a growing city with big city dreams and it finally, had its own sports team. I remember begging my parents for a stuffed Hugo, the team’s mascot, and the only one my dad could find me was one with the suction cups on his hands because stuffed Hugos were flying off the shelves. As was all Hornets merchandise.
The original Hornets team was made up of other teams’ discards, but that didn’t matter to fans at all. (Though, let the record show, original Hornet Muggsy Bogues is to this day, still my favorite basketball player.) At the end of a 20-63 first season, the city threw them a parade. During that same season, the Hornets beat the Chicago Bulls — yes, when Jordan was in his prime — ticket sales were on fire, selling out the next 364 games. For 14 years, the Charlotte Hornets led the league in attendance eight times. Nationally, Charlotte Hornets merchandise was only outsold by Jordan’s Chicago Bulls. Charlotte had a true love affair with its team. But it did not last. (Please read Scott Fowler’s article on the Hornets’ rise and fall in Charlotte.)
To make a long story short, after much debate and a bond failed to past, the team owner took the team, with its name, to New Orleans. In 2004, Charlotte got its chance again, with a new NBA expansion team, the Bobcats (named after owner Bob Johnson). Enthusiasm was luke warm at best. People wanted the Hornets name back. Even when North Carolina native Michael Jordan later bought the team and ticket sales increased, the city was slow to warm to the Bobcats. Eventually, the New Orleans team changed its name to the Pelicans and rumbles around Charlotte emerged. Fans rallied, showing up to Bobcats games in Hornets gear and “Bee-lieving” took hold. When Jordan submitted the request to the NBA to change the name back to the Hornets and it was approved, fans were overjoyed.
Starting in the 2014-2015 season, with an estimated $4 million spent in rebranding the team, the arena and everything in between, the Charlotte Hornets were back! Season tickets sales at the start of the season skyrocketed, only behind Cleveland (once Lebron James announced he was returning) in league sales. Game attendance is up, hovering just above 90% on average. This renewed enthusiasm, thanks to rebranding, not only supports the team, but also benefits the restaurants and bars surrounding the downtown arena, boosting the city’s local economy and reinforcing a vibrant downtown scene.
But let’s talk about retail. As part of the rebranding, there was a fine line between keeping it old school and bringing the team into 2015. Instead of trying to walk that line, the team opted to utilize both, with applications for its original logo, known as its legacy line, and for its sportier, modern logo. As a designer, I’d say brands should really be solid in one look, but knowing the history of this team brand, I think this was an incredibly smart decision, particularly when it comes to retail. Some fans want the old school and some will want the modern; better yet, they’ll spend their dollars for some of both and continue to grow their collections. The new uniforms pay a homage to the iconic Alexander Julian designed uniforms of the original team, but with modern styling.
The enthusiasm for the rebranding shows in the retail sales. New Hornets merchandise became available at the Bobcat’s arena in early 2014. In just the first few days, with exclusive sales rights, the team store and its site produced record sales, setting the pace for what is expected to be a banner season for the team and for its merchandise. Though specific sales numbers have not been made public, the renewed amount of teal and purple being worn around the city should be a prime indication.
So what does this mean for brands? Strategic partnerships are key during a rebranding. The Charlotte Hornets have a distinct advantage over all other NBA teams thanks to Michael Jordan’s ownership, his Jumpman brand with Nike and his own partnerships, like with Hanes. As the excitement for the team rises and attendance is up, brands have increased visibility and can take this same opportunity to refresh their connection with fans. It’s a great chance for national and local brands alike to jump in on the resurgence.
When I went to a game in December, the impact of the rebranding was clear. Brand sponsors, including Hanes and Jordan, featured prominently next to the Hornets-themed stadium refresh. Fans were excited and the marketing team has really fed into the excitement with a Swarm City campaign that launches each game. And if you want team merchandise, you’re going to have to wait in line at the team store. I’ve never seen a team store so busy and keep in mind this is almost a full year since the first merchandise became available. It was nearly impossible to get in the store, which had even expanded to outside its walls and into the arena to help accommodate additional Hornets merchandise, just in time for the holiday push.
Eventually, things will calm down and sales are bound to stabilize as fever-pitched excitement is not something that can be sustained. However, I think there is so much to learn from this rebranding story. It’s more than changing the team’s colors, its about being true to your fanbase, listening to them and making a connection. Brand loyalty is crucial for any sports team, especially as players/coaches come and go. For me, it feels particularly personal, because it was a fun part of my childhood and a turning point for the city I love. I’m thrilled to see that the Buzz is back in Charlotte!