The Intersectionality of Culture and Sport: How the NBA’s Creative Director Position Symbolizes a Shift in Branding Strategy
The 2021 NBA season tipped off with a new noteworthy employee joining one of the league’s franchises. Six-time Grammy-nominated artist and Detroit native Big Sean will be joining the Detroit Pistons as the new Creative Director. In his role, the hip-hop icon will be responsible for strategic guidance of off-court initiatives and cultural aesthetics such as merchandise design, co-branded community, and social responsibility activation. The partnership also includes Sean’s musical expertise in curating in-game entertainment for the Piston’s franchise, including halftime performances and DJ set lists.
Sean is just the second cultural figure to join an NBA team’s management; a few months prior, the Cleveland Cavaliers hired Daniel Arsham for its Creative Director position. Arsham is an Ohio native whose artistic work straddles the lines of art, architecture, and performance. This groundbreaking partnership is believed to be the first of its kind in professional sports, and clearly not the last. Big Sean and Daniel Arsham’s recent announcements might be a break from traditional sports management, but the line between the NBA and artistic culture has never been stark. Since the early 70’s, notorious personalities have dominated basketball and extended influence on style, streetwear and political conversation off the court. The Detroit Pistons and Cleveland Cavaliers are the first teams to embrace cultural shifts at a management level, but there are many potential benefits to blurring these lines and intersecting the two seemingly disparate entities.
The decision to entrust the creative direction of a franchise’s image with people outside of the sports landscape leaves many to ponder what the advantages of this move are. How does it affect a team’s branding power? How does it affect fan perception?
It is important to understand that there is no single explanation for why the Pistons and the Cavaliers have chosen to draw from sectors other than sports. However, being open-minded is advantageous–it leads to greater creativity and diversity of thinking. The art and entertainment space, while superficially very different from the sports world, shares a commitment to building a legacy through hard work and community engagement. Big Sean and Daniel Arsham embody this mentality, thus creating the potential to positively impact and elevate the Pistons and Cavaliers’ franchises, respectively, through their out-of-the-box thinking and knowledge of fan engagement initiatives.
To turn a franchise into a brand, it is important to seek people who are very familiar with the community and the local culture. Speaking the language of the community and a strong knowledge of the tastes, habits, and attitudes of its inhabitants is crucial for any team’s engagement and marketability. With this being said, the intersectionality of sports and culture will likely positively impact a team’s branding power–especially if those who traverse into the sports space share a passion and understanding of the franchise community. Both Big Sean and Daniel Arsham are natives to their respective franchise locations, thus possessing the unique ability to execute a creative vision that uniquely reflects their local culture and upbringing.
“I grew up in the city, which naturally made me a fan of the Bad Boys,” Sean said of the partnership alignment. “I would later have a Grant Hill poster on my wall and then, against all odds, would watch the ’04 Pistons go on to win the Championship, inspiring the whole city of Detroit. I look forward to creatively finding new ways to contribute to their legacy and continue their dedication to the community through sports, art, and of course, music.”
“Most people don’t know that I have strong personal ties to Cleveland,” Arsham wrote in the Cavalier’s announcement. “My family’s Cleveland roots go back to 1908 when my great grandfather moved to the land. My grandfather, father, and I were all born in Cleveland. Cleveland is an iconic American city, and the people of Cleveland have immense pride in their hometown.”
Genuine brand collaborations are hard to come by, but if there is one thing that 2020 has taught us, it is that community is what brings people together. That’s why these new partnerships in the NBA at the Creative Director position are especially powerful to the Pistons and Cavaliers’ fan engagement and marketability; not only will they bring new, creative, and out-of-the-box ideas to the table, but these ideas and team aesthetics will also authentically reflect the ideals and characteristics of the local community. Only time will tell if collaborations and partnerships like these become the norm across the NBA and other sports organizations.