When former Nike Inc. and Under Armour Inc. executive Dean Stoyer joined the Phoenix Suns as chief marketing and communications officer in 2019, the team was ranked dead last in the Western Conference.

The Suns hired a new head coach, Monty Williams, heading into Stoyer’s first season that was postponed for a period due to COVID-19. The team returned to play in the Bubble that summer and posted an 8-0 record, setting the tone for the next season, which ended in the NBA Finals where they fell to the Milwaukee Bucks.

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In so many words, the team is significantly better than its previous seasons, when NBA Hall of Famer Charles Barkley joked on “Inside the NBA” about the team’s woes, alleging hard seats and stale nachos at the arena. But while the team is shining on the court in the NBA Playoffs this year, where it is now in the semifinals versus the Dallas Mavericks, its off-the-court collaborations, according to Stoyer, have increased team merchandise sales to the “upper echelon.” A NBA.com story showed that the Suns are ranked eighth in popular team merchandise, and teams that round out the top 10 include the Los Angeles Lakers, Philadelphia 76ers, Golden State Warriors, Chicago Bulls, Brooklyn Nets, Boston Celtics, Milwaukee Bucks, New York Knicks and Memphis Grizzlies.

These projects help increase the franchise’s relevance in other markets and around the world — the kind of relevance owned by teams like the New York Yankees, with one of the most popular sports logos in the world, and Paris Saint Germain F.C., which boasts partnerships with Jordan and Goat that lend itself to the youthful sneaker heads in Europe and abroad.

“When we took over this side of the business, we were in the lower third of the league, but about a week ago the league released its end-of-season sales report and we’re [in the] upper echelon over a year,” Stoyer said. “I was very fortunate in ownership and upper management taking the chance and allowing me to take all of this on. I think they’re one of the first teams to bring all of their integrated marketing channels together to drive all of our stories.”

Stoyer took over the franchise’s merchandising business and put together a small in-house design team to manage designs, believing a T-shirt is powerful when it’s done right. “I learned that from my days at Nike and Under Armour,” he said.

“I learned the importance of emphasizing purpose in everything we create, putting the fan ahead of everyone else, and the athlete at the center of everything we do,” he continued. “When we lead with the voice of our athletes and coach, we connect with fans genuinely and authentically — that extends to the natural collaborations between artists, designers and our players. When we create with purpose there is never a wasted word, stitch, or frame that could distract or detract from the message we are trying to convey.”

The Suns released collaborations with Warren Lotas, Jeff Hamilton and LRG, and have a launch coming this month with Kill the Hype.

The NBA and fashion have been synonymous for decades. The sport has seen many style changes, from the glamorous 1970s to the sneaker and apparel endorsements, the hip-hop and streetwear era in the late 1990s and early 2000s, the early 2010s GQ buttoned-up period in response to the league’s dress code, and now the “tunnel style” era during which designers battle to be an athlete’s brand of choice for their tunnel entrance.

The individual athletes get most of the attention, attending runway shows in New York City, Milan and Paris and scoring collaboration deals, endorsements and red carpet moments. But the teams are not far behind in the fashion ecosystem.

NBA franchises release product collaborations through officially licensed collections that involve more than one team. It’s a regular occurrence that goes back years with brands like The Very Warm and, more recently, with Rowing Blazers, Grungy Gentleman, Standard Issue Tees and Keiser Clark, among others. Eyewear designer and manufacturing house Imatta acquired the license for the NBA last year and this month launched sunglasses, visors and goggles for the league.

“We picked teams we wanted to work with initially but as we shared with the NBA and the franchises, more teams reached out,” said Keiser Clark founder and designer Marc Keiser.

His Los Angeles-based brand produced vintage letterman and rugby-inspired clothing for the Atlanta Hawks, Boston Celtics, Chicago Bulls, Golden State Warriors, Los Angeles Lakers, Miami Heat, Phoenix Suns and San Antonio Spurs.

The NBA, Keiser Clark capsule collection. - Credit: Courtesy Photo

The NBA, Keiser Clark capsule collection. – Credit: Courtesy Photo

Courtesy Photo

“We’re used to designing a collection and knowing this is what we want to do, so adding the layer of the teams and the league,” Keiser said. “We were caught in the center of their licenses and partnerships and tried to design around those to make sure we weren’t stepping on toes.”

Keiser Clark has been photographed on several NBA players over the years and most recently on Boston Celtics star Jayson Tatum ahead of the team’s semifinals series versus the Milwaukee Bucks. Keiser sees the collection as a full-circle moment as Boston is his home city.

“It wasn’t a money grab thing,” Keiser said. “For us, this is a great opportunity whether we make money on it or not. I always thought, as a brand, you have to be validated by retail buyers, editors and celebrities to have the consumer believe in your brand, design and price point. The league was stoked when we did the cardigan sets, because they hadn’t seen it before.”

Individual teams don’t have to wait for officially licensed collaborations for new products. The Los Angeles Lakers did apparel with artist Takashi Murakami for ComplexCon in 2019 and this year collaborated with Madhappy to benefit the brand’s Madhappy Foundation. The Philadelphia 76ers teamed with retailer Lapstone & Hammer on the “76ers Crossover Capsule” that featured collaborative product by Needles, Eric Emanuel, Everest Isles and Blackstock & Weber, among others. And Kith and the Knicks have released two apparel and Nike Air Force 1 sneakers to date (the retailer also designed the team’s City Edition jerseys).

Keiser believes working with buyers for NBA stores and arena stores is much easier than selling to fashion retailers because the buyers know what their consumers like and are confident of how many fans will enter their stores.

Lotas produced an apparel collection named “The Final Shot,” inspired by Phoenix Suns star Devin Booker’s buzzer beater shot over the Los Angeles Clippers. “We were looking toward the end of last year’s regular season to do a drop with the same design from summer 2020,” Stoyer said.

“We treated it like an old-school sneaker drop,” he added. “One-thousand people started lining up at 11 p.m. for a 9 a.m. door. I found out later that people flew in from New York City, Florida, Texas because they knew this was the only place to get the product.”

LRG launched apparel with the Suns in April and the team partnered with Jeff Hamilton on a jacket for the NBA’s 75th anniversary. They did a small run of 20 jackets to gauge fans’ appetite, and it performed well enough for the partners to launch another jacket this month. They’re also partnering with Kill the Hype on caps, also launching in May.

Stoyer introduced a unique opportunity for players through Valley Threads, an in-house brand where Suns and WNBA Phoenix Mercury players can design their own capsule collections. Suns point guard Cameron Payne debuted the new line with his own designs. His teammates surprised him by wearing his designs on their flight.

“We’ve been able to contribute to the business overall,” Stoyer said about the merchandise launches. “The intangibles of extending your brand have an impact on ticket sales, membership and revenue. I would be remiss to not shout out how incredible our team has been. We had to set the table to be successful off the court and make sure our brand is in a good place.”

Phoenix Suns point guard Cameron Payne in his Valley Threads collection. - Credit: Courtesy Photo

Phoenix Suns point guard Cameron Payne in his Valley Threads collection. – Credit: Courtesy Photo

Courtesy Photo

But teams and fashion labels have different goals.

For instance, Brett Johnson, the artistic director of Monumental Sports and Entertainment that operates the Washington Wizards, Capitals and Mystics sports franchises, as well as Capital One Arena where the teams play, has been tasked with elevating the brand to a luxury profile.

Johnson partnered with Graff Jewelry to curate a selection of pieces for the Washington Wizards welcome event, though the company is not their official jewelry partner. The aim in teaming with the jewelry company was to establish a level of detail he wants to pass on to the players, the ownership and Monumental’s VIPs.

The designer also created a luxury travel collection with merino wool tracksuits and a travel bag for the Washington Wizards’ exhibition game in Japan centered around cherry blossoms, Japan’s signature flower, and for the 110th anniversary of the cherry blossom tree being planted in Washington, D.C. as a gift from the Mayor of Tokyo to the U.S. The collection and exhibition game play well for one of the Wizards’ star players, Rui Hachimura, who was born in Toyama, Japan.

The luxury collection may become available to the general public in addition to the teams, ownership and VIPs.

Johnson said he’s also in talks with a watch company that currently doesn’t have a presence in the D.C., Maryland area and would like to further their footprint at Capital One Arena.

“What I’ve been tasked to do is transform the full brand,” Johnson said. “This is well beyond a one-off. I’m coming from a luxury sector and want to stay in a luxury sector and want to be first to market and have this relationship and rapport with luxury brands. It’s different from what I’ve seen everyone doing. I think it’s something cool, different and truly hope it’s inspiring and writing a new chapter in sports history.”

When it comes to product, Stoyer and Johnson are taking a leap into different product styles beyond what’s expected from a typical merchandise shop with apparel and jerseys.

Johnson’s collection for the Wizards will debut with the cherry blossom court that he designed for the team’s home game, and the Suns’ next collaborations are launching in May. In addition, Keiser Clark is releasing a new collaboration with the NBA in June.

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