The Miami Heat take Heat Culture from locker room to City Edition jerseys
Jersey includes team’s mantra of ‘hardest-working, best conditioned’
Since the NBA introduced the “City Edition” jerseys, which are meant to connect each of the league’s 30 teams to the cities they represent, ahead of the 2017-18 season, we’ve seen a lot of bad concepts. Weird fonts, even weirder color schemes, and handing over entire creative designs to rapper Drake.
But one team has been consistently great over the last six seasons, and that’s the Miami Heat. Their Vice series of jerseys, heavily inspired by the Miami Vice television series of the 1980s and the team’s former arena, sold more in its first year than all the other 29 NBA teams’ City Edition jerseys combined. Their Mashup series of the past two seasons, which combined elements of previous Heat uniforms over the team’s 30-year history, was not as popular as Vice, but still outsold the black, white, fuschia or blue jerseys that came before it.
For the 2023-24 season, Michael McCullough, the Heat’s executive vice president and chief marketing officer, and his team relied heavily on the franchise’s vaunted locker room identity, placing “Heat Culture” on the front of the City Edition jerseys.
McCullough, who has been with the Heat since 1997, spoke with Andscape about taking “culture” from being a state of mind to this year’s brand identity, how much of a headache the uniforms’ shorts will be, and how difficult it is to follow up the success of Vice.
We as an organization don’t talk about ‘Heat Culture’ outwardly. You don’t hear us talking about it. Even inside this building. Pat Riley doesn’t walk around talking about ‘Heat Culture’ this and ‘Heat Culture’ that. When you’re here, you just know it’s what it is. And then you either choose to live it or you don’t stay here very long.
The process with Nike with uniforms is you’re always 2½ to three years in advance. So when we were launching the black Mashup jersey two years ago, ‘Culture’ was already in development. So you’ll see how the word ‘Culture’ is weathered, it’s distressed, it’s torn. That’s exactly what ‘Heat Culture’ feels like. It’s not pretty. It’s gritty, it’s messy, it is forgotten, it’s an afterthought. It’s dirty. I mean it’s all those things that our players are and represent.
When you look on the right [side of the jersey] what you’re seeing there is our mantra: ‘Hardest-working, best conditioned, most professional, unselfish, toughest, meanest, nastiest team in the NBA.’ And that mantra continues down the side of the shirt down onto the side of the shorts. We wanted them to embody this. This is one of those Easter eggs that fans really love and really take to when they actually get the jersey in their hands. Pat created this mantra in 1995 and we’ve had it as part of our ethos in our organization since then.
You haven’t seen numerals on an NBA jersey or on an NBA short in probably 40-50 years. It is not a thing that the league does anymore. It’s not a thing that Nike likes to do. You haven’t seen it for a lot of reasons. The single biggest reason is because it’s a massive headache for equipment managers, and it’s a massive headache for manufacturers, because when the team travels and Jimmy [Butler] tears his shorts or gets blood on his shorts, the equipment manager’s got to go and get another pair of shorts. But if he has to carry specific shorts for each player, specifically, because [Butler’s] numbers are on there, that creates a challenge for an equipment manager.
It is a significant cost. I’ll give you an idea. The last couple of years when we made a commitment to have different numerals for the Mashup uniform, that meant we had to have the No. 1 in all the different numeral styles that we were offering, the No. 2 in all the different numeral styles that we’re offering. That alone for the Mashup campaign the last two years was over a $350,000 commitment on our part. This one is not as high because it’s the same numeral style that we’re offering. So the financial commitment isn’t as high, but the manpower commitment is still very significant because we are buying more shorts than we’ve ever purchased before.
Nike didn’t want anything to do with it. And this is no shade on Nike. Again, their process is they have 30 NBA teams that they’re cranking out uniforms for and shorts, and to try to create a certain number of shorts for No. 22, a certain number of shorts for No. 14, a certain number of shorts for No. 13, that is not part of their process. So they were like, ‘We can’t do it.’ And we said, ‘You know what? We’ll do it.’
We don’t do anything without [team equipment manager Robert Pimental]. First of all, the good thing is Rob and I go way back. So I have a relationship with Rob and he gets what we’re doing. We would not have been able to do any of these things that we’ve been doing with our uniform campaigns were it not for Rob.
At this point Pimental conveniently walks by McCullough’s office during the interview.
Me: Don’t let Mike say anything. When Mike told you a couple of years ago that you’re going to have to press all these individual numbers on the shorts, what was the first thing that you wanted to say to Mike?
Pimental: To be honest with you, I don’t have an issue with it. It’s not that hard. It’s not that bad. It really is not that bad.
Me: I’m trying to do a story here, Rob.
McCullough: That was not planned. He was walking by.
Me: Yeah, whatever. I don’t know how y’all do it down there. Rob just happened to be walking by? Where’s Pat Riley? He’s going to happen to walk by too?
McCullough: I guarantee you that ain’t going to happen. That will not be a drive-by.
When we presented this one [to the rest of the basketball staff, including Riley], I don’t think I’ve ever had a faster approval. Those guys don’t like to give up how they’re feeling, they’re good poker players. But when we got into this presentation and we started showing these graphics and everything, they couldn’t fake it anymore. They couldn’t hold it. They were like hell to the yes.
When the uniform first started, it was just the word ‘Culture.’ From a legal and a trademarking standpoint that became a challenge because trademarking the word ‘culture,’ there’s a lot of people who say that word or there’s a lot of products that have that word on it. Even though we had it associated with the ball and flame logo underneath, it was going to be a challenge for us and for the NBA and our legal team to go out and properly protect that uniform if it just said ‘Culture.’
It just wasn’t how the uniform was initially designed. And that’s how the design process works for Vice or Mashup or anything. It goes through a number of iterations before it gets to where it ends. And for us, that was no different. That change didn’t happen at the very beginning. It was once the process started going and the legal team started looking at the possibility of trademarking it and protecting it, that’s when we started to say, ‘Hey, we might want to add another descriptor on top with our word mark that is already protected and trademarked.’ So now when you put those two things together, you’ve got something that you can legally protect.
Pat said things back in ’95 when he first got here about wanting to establish a culture and what that culture was going to represent. And he had a very specific version of that in mind, which meant that the players were going to be in world-class condition, that there was going to be a commitment to enjoying each other’s success, that there was going to be this willingness to work hard, harder than other teams. And his practices became legendary, but it was because other people were talking about it or other players who would come from another team and come to the Heat would be like, ‘This place is different.’ And that just continued. It’s continued since 1995.
According to the team, the Vice series sold more than $25 million in merchandise and has been almost universally praised for the sleekness of its design and the brash colorfulness that isn’t common to millennial-era NBA jerseys. Replicating that success is akin to making another “Thriller.” It’s a nearly impossible task.
We were trying to figure out what was going to follow Vice, and [the marketing team] pitched all the uniforms for me, and my direct quote to them was, ‘There’s nothing in here that scares me.’ There wasn’t anything in there that made me go, ‘Is everybody going to like that?’ That’s what I want. I want to be challenged. We want to be a little scared. They went back, they came back with Mashup, and I was like, ‘You got it.’ Because I was like [makes a gasping noise] and then you live with it, and then you look at it and you play with it and you take it home and you’re like, ‘That scares me. That challenges us.’ How are we going to do that? How are we going to overcome the instant, ‘Hey, that’s a ransom note.’ How are you going to overcome that sort of stuff? How are you going to make that a selling point instead of a negative? We want that kind of challenge.
That’s the kind of stuff that keeps us up at night. Every uniform that we’ve created for a City Edition has outsold the one before it. Every successive year, the one that we do outsells the one before it. And so we have this track record of success with these things and we think the biggest part of it is how we story tell around these uniforms, how we launch them, how we create this story and this narrative and how the uniform exists in this narrative on our players.
It is a challenge, but from our standpoint, the uniform is the embodiment of the team and what it enables us to do is really create a brand that has the ability to breathe and to flex in different ways. So when you wear your red, black, and white — your core uniform — that evokes one image of the Heat. And then when we establish Vice with all its different colors, that enabled us from a brand standpoint to take our brand and go in all these different directions that red, black and white doesn’t enable you to do. We’re still a ‘Heat Culture’ team, we’re still outworking people, we’re still diving on the floor. All those things, we’re just doing it looking different than you had been accustomed to seeing the Miami Heat. What we’ve done today is we have come full circle to the core ethos in a uniform that actually is established right on its chest. This is our brand mantra, this is our ethos, this is who we are as an organization embody in a physical garment.
Guys going to the NBA Finals and all that sort of stuff, literally that helps our brand, but we don’t control that. Now, we can make the guys look great on the way to the NBA Finals and all that stuff, but we don’t control how they play. We control how they look, and we can control how people feel about that. That’s what gets us juiced. How do we bring more people in so that when they see our guys wearing this stuff, they like it, they want to be a part of it?
We know everybody’s not going to like everything that we do. That’s OK, that’s fine. You don’t have to like it. But our job is to try to make you like it, and we need to make enough people like it.