Lisa Piken Koper

With 450 million people playing basketball worldwide, the NBA is going global.

The league’s senior vice president of merchandising partnerships Lisa Piken Koper highlighted an assortment of initiatives in a talk with WWD’s senior editor for men’s Jean E. Palmieri.

The recent opening of the NBA store in Beijing, its largest outside of North America, is one example of its international reach. Operated by Topsports, a leading sports retailer in China, the NBA Style store sells replica NBA uniforms, personalized jerseys, Beijing hyperlocal T-shirts and has the largest NBA Hardwood Classics section in mainland China.

To try to build its fan base, the NBA starts with growing the game and improving participation worldwide. Working closely with the Ministry of Education in China, the league is trying to help make basketball part of the everyday curriculum. There are also select preseason or regular season games in such locations as Mexico and Europe. Next year a regular season one will be held in Paris — and pre-season games will be held in India and Japan going forward. With 300 NBA brand dealers worldwide, most of the growth stems from abroad, with China leading the charge, especially in the summer, Koper said.

Explaining how Nike is the NBA’s on-court outfitter through 2025, Koper noted how switching from Adidas and Reebok led to revamping the product mix. Referring to Nike’s focus on innovation and the league’s aim to be more of a lifestyle brand, she said, “Nike challenged us. ‘OK, stodgy, old NBA, you’ve done certain things a certain way. Let’s look at it.’ For example, our home teams always wore their white uniforms…so we changed it to be home team decides. Now when you go to a basketball game, you see a lot more diversity in uniforms and in colors, which then leads to more merchandise opportunities.”

Nike also created editions for jerseys, as in the Association, the Icon, Statement and City editions – the idea is taking the teams’ logos and putting them through “a hyperlocal lens — you have to be from here to really understand what it means,” Koper said. “It’s been really, really successful so far.”

In terms of replica products and other collections for fans, the L.A. Lakers’ LeBron James and Golden State Warriors’ Stephen Curry continue to be top-selling names, but there is more diversity in the names of players that are fueling sales, such as James Harden and Ben Simmons, she said. Hoodies, T-shirts and headgear are among the top-selling categories which are sold through the NBA’s site, team arenas and via Nike’s direct-to-consumer, as well as traditional sporting goods retailers like Foot Locker. Along with the new Beijing store, there is an NBA flagship on Fifth Avenue that is operated by Fanatics. This summer a NBA Experience, which will have a retail store, will open in Orlando this summer.

Designer collaborations offer new channels of distribution such as partnering with DMA United, Kitsune, Supreme (via Nike), Mitchell & Ness and Jeremy Scott. To try to keep these designs premium, the NBA tries to go direct-to-consumer and limited edition in certain circumstances, she said.

The social media reach of James, Russell Westbrook and others has a halo effect for the NBA, Koper said, “Our guys have become these amazing fashion icons, going to shows. Any interest in our athletes generally lifts us. If they have their own fashion collaboration, even if it isn’t related to any NBA marks, it still lifts us all. Social has been a huge driver. We are the number-one sports league on social media between the NBA, our teams and the athletes.”

NBA Kicks launched on Christmas on Twitter and Instagram — due partially to the league’s lifting some footwear rules which allowed for more flexibility in players’ footwear choices and colors. On another front, the NBA just signed a deal with Champion to be the official outfitter of the NBA 2K League’s 21 teams, providing uniforms as well as warmup, travel and practice apparel. In-game avatars will also be outfitted in Champion-branded uniforms.

Through its partners at Take 2 (2K) and Electronic Arts (EA), the NBA is experimenting in the virtual apparel space. Capsule collections with streetwear brands FairPlay (NBA2K19) and Pink Dolphin (EA Live) will allow gamers to dress their virtual avatars in NBA fan apparel that will also be available for purchase at retail.

“It’s new and we’re still trying to figure it out, but we’re excited about the potential of having Champion come on board.” Koper said. “The other thing that we’re testing is some virtual collaborations with our 2K and other video games. So that you can buy things in game and then actually bring them to retail. We’re doing a lot of testing in this space.”

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