In a nondescript warehouse more than a dozen miles from the bright lights of FTX Arena and the sparkling waters of Biscayne Bay, the Miami Heat do something different. Again.
They have dedicated 20,000 square feet of workspace to handle the demands of their thriving retail sales, something no other NBA franchise is doing. There, just days before the launch of their latest Nike “City Edition” apparel, they process incoming orders, customize jerseys and ship their goods.
In this warehouse they tell stories.
That’s the vision behind Miami’s creative and marketing department, the largest — and most successful — of its kind in the NBA, according to Michael McCullough, the team’s executive vice president and chief marketing officer. McCullough assembled his group of visionaries during his 25 years as a member of Miami’s Business Operations Unit. That longevity has given him and his team an ambivalent freedom to thrive: the stability and well-deserved trust that allows them to innovate in ways other NBA franchises are unable or unwilling to do.
“It’s an organizational initiative from the top down,” McCullough says, but acknowledges that innovation doesn’t always sell easily. Ideas are developed and shaped, but ultimately must be approved by the top leadership of the Heat, including Micky Arison, Miami’s managing general partner, and Pat Riley, the team’s longtime president. With all the handcrafted images of tailored suits and slicked-back hair, Riley’s collars are blue rather than starched. So when the marketing team proposed the idea of a “pink jersey” (the team’s 2018 “Sunset Vice” line of merchandise), McCullough envisioned there would be a backlash.
Instead, Riley didn’t waver in his commitment or support. “His exact words were, ‘I trust you.’ I will never say [he] gives us carte blanche, but he understands the power of branding and the power of what we’ve built. We’re not a rogue marketing team running off and doing our own thing. Everything we do goes through them because they are a part of this thing.”
That synergy has resulted in unprecedented success for an aspect of the team that’s largely overlooked given Miami’s performances on the pitch. Through Shaquille O’Neal’s tenure with The Heat, Dwyane Wade’s historic career, LeBron James’ two championships, and now with Jimmy Butler, Bam Adebayo and Tyler Herro at the helm of the team, Miami’s sales have shown steady growth. As the team went through a transition period between Superstar acquisitions, McCullough and his group released their “Vice” edition and continued to lead the NBA in jersey sales even as the Heat struggled to make the playoffs.
“Traditionally, the name on the back of the jersey sells. That’s what drives it,” said Andy Montero, Miami’s vice president of retail and business development. “But I’ve never seen in my life that the name on the front means more than the name on the back.”
Montero is a staple for any longtime Heat fan. Watch any home show and the caricatured “Crazy Andy” is usually linked to the “Item of the Game” announcing a limited time sale of a specific item of merchandise. But Montero brought his skills and enthusiasm from Champs Sports to take over Miami’s retail operations in 1998 and has helped spearhead the team’s sales success for 24 seasons.
Montero manages Heat’s burgeoning online sales, unique customization capabilities and five retail stores, including a new store that opened in November at Miami’s largest mall and one at Miami International Airport. “If you’re traveling through the airport, Miami is number one that sells. People want to take a piece of it home with them. So it’s not the heat, it’s the city itself. It’s fun. It’s light. Even if you’re not a fan of the team,” explains Montero. “It looks super cool. And if it says ‘Miami’ on it, you’ll buy it.”
It’s part of the process that sets Miami apart from the 29 other NBA franchises; Developing the Miami Heat brand to exist as a separate entity from the product on the court. The team created their own clothing line called Court Culture, which operates like any other fashion company, complete with its own official NBA license. Working with established companies like lululemon, Herschel, Adidas and others to “create merchandise that’s made in Miami and designed in Miami for Miami,” says Nicole Perez, the team’s senior manager of retail marketing (only been on the team for four years ). While other teams depend on a particular player’s fame, or perhaps a championship, to boost merchandise sales, Miami’s brand stands on its own.
The collaborative process involves an in-house design team that not only develops the unique clothing but also any visual branding. The banners flying outside the FTX Arena, the pre-game introductory video, and the slogans on each Heat broadcast were all designed by the same group. “What sets our approach apart from everyone else in the NBA is not just our ability to execute, but we fully recognized the opportunity to not just create another jersey and put it on the market and really hope that people like it, but build a solid business around it,” said Jennifer Alvarez, senior vice president of brand and chief creative officer, now in her 18th year at Heat. “That’s what teams are not ready for. We buy it and we invest in it because we know the retail opportunity is there. [We] Create creative direction for the campaign and let our fans fall in love with the story.”
When the marketing team made the decision to move away from Miami’s immensely popular Vice merchandise, there were concerns about how to write a sequel to a thriving bestseller. “We were nervous,” says a laughing Alvarez, “how do you come from the King-of-the-Hill to present something so different? There were a number of fans who wanted Vice to be our permanent identity.” And so the team’s unconventional approach was to produce something that was both visually appealing and gave fans the ability to buy jerseys to customize in a way never seen before: Miami’s “mashup” jerseys.
Introduced during the 2021-22 season, “Mashup” allowed fans to select number styles from different eras of Miami Heat history. Thousands of unique combinations allowed fans to fully immerse themselves in the design process, whether purchasing from the team’s online store or from FTX Arena (another one-of-a-kind experience where incoming fans customize each jersey and have it finished by the end of the game (delivered by conveyor belt in a glass-enclosed workshop called “The Lab.”) or in one of their physical outlets. “It was so different and alive,” says Alvarez, “but it fit with the energy of Vice and our fans really got into it, too. We exceeded our retail targets. Our expectations of digital engagement. It was a complete success.”
Success is nothing new for McCullough and his group. They were the first retail team to be inducted into the NBA Business Hall of Fame. They have won seven Team of the Year awards as the best-selling franchise in the NBA, an honor no other team has received more than once. They have remained one of the highest-grossing teams in the league. Regardless of who wears their jerseys on the pitch. Whether the team wins or loses. And even through a league-wide shutdown in 2020.
Just before the NBA suspended its season in March of this year, the team launched its latest innovation – the warehouse – while the rest of the league seemed to stand still. Because Montero and the team anticipated retail changes before anyone else, they realized they could either wait and see if sales returned to the previous status quo or try something new. “We had already signed the lease and as soon as we could we moved on,” he says. “And we’re glad we did.”
Past a security check and some designated offices, Montero proudly opens the door to the manufacturing facility. A call center staffed with customer service representatives can take orders or answer questions over the phone and “connect with fans.” A loading dock can handle shipping to all corners of the world, or by partnering with DoorDash, to someone in town to see a game who would like to wear a unique jersey for the experience. “We can take your order over the phone or online and have it shipped to you the same day,” says Montero.
Dozens of shelves filled with empty jerseys, shorts and other items fill the thousands of square meters. Boxes labeled “BUTLER” or “HERRO” are waiting to be opened by up to 55 employees on site. Next to bin after bin of number patches are the machines that personalize each jersey with pinpoint precision. “We had to preorder the numbers, tens of thousands of them,” says McCullough, “but we knew we would end up using all of them and then some. That’s how much we believe in what we do.”
It’s a commitment of time and money spent on machines, clothing and salary, but it’s backed by a proven success rate, support from top front office decision-makers, and stability that’s a rare luxury in the NBA, or at all is -change company.
It’s a luxury McCullough appreciates, and one who understands why other franchises just can’t emulate what Miami has done so well over the years. “It takes a lot of time and dedication,” he says. “We were made to act in a way that other teams can’t. We have retail. We have shipments. We have creative ones. We have business communications, gaming operations and our digital marketing… we have a big unified voice because we have all of those functions in one place.”
What comes next, McCullough won’t specify, other than to reiterate that this year’s success won’t define the team any more than the Vice apparel line did. “Everyone in this room is a really good storyteller,” he says. “Let’s take a breath and then move on to next year. We all have to work to figure out how to shape this narrative. We’re going to have a very different story next year and it has to top this one. We are proud of that. Every year has to be better than the last.”