Why do NBA teams change their logos?

Take a moment and think about each of these NBA players and their associated team and year. After reading each player’s name, I want you to visualize in your head the specific jersey that they are wearing, focusing on the team logo from that date. 

  • Carmelo Anthony on the Nuggets in 2005
  • Allen Iverson on the 76ers in 2002
  • Kevin Garnett on the Timberwolves in 2001
  • Jason Kidd on the Nets in 2004
  • Baron Davis on the Warriors in 2006 
  • Vince Carter on the Raptors in 2002

For any diehard NBA fan, it’s easy to picture the team logos plastered across these players’ chests, with oversized jerseys tucked into their baggy shorts as they run down the hardwood. The late 1990s and early 2000s gave fans some iconic NBA logos. For example, the velociraptor with a purple background is an all time classic, and will always represent the Vince Carter era in Toronto. 

Jeremy Lin wearing the throwback Raptors jersey at the 2019 championship parade
Credit: Joshua Chua 

That Raptors logo was the unofficial symbol of NBA basketball in Canada, and today, the throwback purple Vince Carter jersey can still be seen dotting the stands at Toronto Raptors’ home games. When something is that iconic, and symbolizes so much more than just a team, why change it? That purple velociraptor coincided with the first golden age of Raptors basketball, as 1995’s newest team shot into the spotlight with their star player at the helm. But, like any company, the Raptors evolved and changed their logo bit by bit until it reached its current form, with a totally new design and colorway. 

The importance of logos

From a business perspective, the main product that NBA teams sell is sports entertainment, which is extremely visual in nature. Because of this, logos play a key role for every team across the league. The logos are not just used to help players distinguish each other on the court, but these symbols are also inscribed onto fan merchandise, team flags, team social media posts, and spray-painted by artists onto public murals across the city. These logos, as trademarks, are some of the most valuable assets that each team owns.  

A fan-made Allen Iverson mural featuring the 1998-2009 76ers logo
Credit: Biljana Jovanovic

Branding and design experts agree that logos are absolutely essential, and can make or break a business. Robert Jones, a branding professor at the University of East Anglia in England, is an expert when it comes to logos and brand design. He says, “Your logo is how people recognise you, and it helps express how you’re different from your rivals,” adding, “But [at the same time], people assess you not on the strength of your logo, but on the quality of your product or service. So all of that real stuff matters more.” What it comes down to is a combination of the logo itself and the company behind it. A sleek, easily recognizable NBA logo is awesome, but if the team lacks star players and a winning tradition, then the logo loses its power. 

Fans are passionate about their team’s logos, and whenever there’s a change, the reactions are quick and strong. When the Warriors unveiled their new logo for the 2019-2020 season, which featured small changes like a new font and more accurate depiction of the Golden Gate Bridge, fans took to Twitter to share their opinions. One user, @iamjemsantos, tweeted, “New Golden State Warriors logos starting next season, coinciding with the move to San Francisco. I like the minor tweaks. Just a right upgrade.” The response to the new Warriors logo was mostly positive, with some making fun of the fact that it was such a small adjustment from the old one. But in other cases, like when the Hornets moved to New Orleans and became the Pelicans, anger was the primary fan sentiment. Twitter user @NotBillWalton took to the internet after the new Pelicans logo was revealed, exclaiming, “The New Orleans Pelicans logo looks less like an NBA franchise makeover and more like a new Batman villain. “Beware the PELICAN!’”

With logos being such an integral part of every NBA team’s history and identity, I wanted to look into what factors contribute to an NBA team logo change, and see if there are any common trends. In the case of the Raptors, was this the team’s attempt to move on from the age of Vinsanity? Was it meant to appeal to a younger generation of fans? Was it because of declining revenue, a low winning percentage, or head coach volatility? All of these factors, and more, surely had at least some impact in the front office’s decision. So, in the quest to determine what conditions lead to an NBA team logo change, I dove into the data to see if any trends indicate a high likelihood of a logo change.

General notes about logo changes

The average number of times that an NBA team has changed its logo since entering the league is 5 times. The Bulls are the team that has changed its logo the fewest times, having never altered the original red and black bull that they debuted when the franchise was founded. On the other end of the spectrum, the Warriors and Hawks have changed their logos the most, at 10 times each. 

The team whose most recent logo change was the longest time ago was the Boston Celtics, who introduced the classic green leprechaun at the start of the 1995-1996 season. And the team with the most recent logo changes are the Golden State Warriors and the Houston Rockets, who are both debuting new logos for the 2019-2020 season. 

Methodology

I gathered data from all 30 NBA teams, and specifically focused on their most recent logo change, which for every team (besides the Chicago Bulls who have never changed their logo), took place at some point between the late 1990s and late 2010s. The key information that I looked at is:

  • Winning percentage in the three years before a logo change
  • The number of different head coaches in the three years before a logo change
  • Whether or not the team changed their name when they changed logos

The important thing was to look at the data in the years leading up to a logo change, rather than after. This allowed me to analyze the conditions that might lead to a change, rather than try to draw loose correlations between a logo change and how it influences team performance after the fact.

Winning percentages

The first metric that I looked at was each team’s winning percentage during the three seasons before a logo change, to see if there is any correlation with a consistent losing record and changing logos.

In any given NBA season, a .500 record is usually good enough to squeeze into the playoffs as an 8 seed (out of 8 possible seeds). Although 18 teams had sub-.500 records before their most recent logo change, there were 11 teams, or roughly one third of the league, that had records above .500 before debuting new logos. These 11 teams show that on-court success can still lead to a logo change. In fact, there were 5 teams with winning percentages above .650 for the three seasons before they changed their logos. Last season, a .650 win percentage would have been good enough for a 2 or 3 seed in the playoffs. And one interesting example is the Spurs, who had a league-high .847 win percentage and won an NBA championship over the three seasons before changing their logo.

It’s not uncommon for fans to assume that teams that have had a couple of bad seasons in a row might want to reinvent their look in an attempt to leave the losing in the past. While this line of thought makes sense, and nearly two-thirds of teams had losing records in the three seasons leading up to their most recent logo change, it is still common for teams that have had sustained success to give their logos an update as well. If some of the top teams, like the Spurs, changed their logos after incredible three year runs, then there has to be more to the equation.

Head coaching volatility

In the business world, there are a variety of reasons why a company might want to go through a rebranding phase, and one of those is issues with upper level management. For example, for a company that has gone through several CEOs in a short time frame, whether that be due to poor leadership, declining sales, or an internal scandal, it can result in low consumer confidence. Thus, in an attempt to mark the end of a period of management volatility, it might make sense for a company to change their logo as well. Changing CEOs while simultaneously updating a logo can reflect both an internal and external makeover, and if executed well, can encourage loyalty from existing and new customers alike. NBA teams are no different, and there are many cases in which head coach volatility leads to a logo change.

The average NBA coach tenure with their current team is just under 3.5 seasons. This means that in any given three year span, there should be an average of .86 coaches, which in real terms equates to one head coach in that time frame. Obviously, this is not always the case, as teams change their head coaches all the time. But, I wanted to see if in the three seasons leading up to a logo change, NBA teams have had a volatile head coaching situation.

For the most recent batch of logo changes, the average number of coaches over the three seasons before the change was 1.69. Although this may not seem like a lot, numerically, it is nearly double the average number of coaches that one should expect a team to have in any given three year time frame. It’s worth noting that there are six teams that had 3 different head coaches (a new coach each year) leading up to a logo change. And the Milwaukee Bucks, between 2012-2015, had 4 different coaches. This data shows a strong correlation between head coaching volatility and a logo change.

Changing team names

In the NBA, it is rare for teams to change their names. Since 2000, there have only been three teams that have changed their names, which are now the Oklahoma City Thunder (formerly the Supersonics), the Charlotte Hornets (formerly the Bobcats), and the New Orleans Pelicans (formerly the Hornets). This does not include teams that have changed cities and kept their same name, like the Brooklyn Nets (formerly the New Jersey Nets). All three of these teams underwent dramatic logo changes when they changed their names. While these logo changes may seem obvious, it’s not something that the teams were required to do. Teams had the option to keep the same logo but make small changes using new colors or fonts. But, in all of these examples, the teams decided to do a total makeover, replacing their old logos entirely. The Thunder, for example, went from their green and white Supersonics logo to a blue and orange shield with “OKC” across the front. 

Although it is a small sample size, 100% of teams that have changed their names have changed their logos. So, it is safe to assume that when a team changes its name, its branding will be updated to reflect that.

Other factors considered

In addition to analyzing winning percentage, head coaching volatility, and name changes leading up to a logo change, I also looked into a few other factors to see if they corresponded with logo changes. One of these is whether or not teams frequently change their logos after a star player leaves the team. For example, both the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Golden State Warriors changed their logos the season after each of their star players left. In 2010, when LeBron James left the Cavaliers, they underwent a slight logo change, and similarly, when Kevin Durant left the Warriors in 2019, the team changed their logo. These are both former league MVPs and NBA champions, so maybe the departure of these once-in-a-generation, franchise players had something to do with the logo change. Despite these two examples, there were not many other cases in which this occurred. And even in the case of the Warriors in 2019, they also underwent a stadium change that year, so that could have also played a role.

Other factors like internal scandals (ex. Clippers owner Donald Sterling using racist language) or city and arena changes don’t have any significant correlation with logo changes. Scandals occur at random times, and when looking at teams moving cities or home stadiums, there are no clear trends indicating that they result in new logos.

Key takeaways

So, when is an NBA team most likely to change its logo? After taking into account winning percentage during the three years before a logo change, the number of different head coaches in that time frame, and team name changes, there is a clear set of indicators that signal a team is going to do some serious rebranding. If a team has just experienced three consecutive seasons with a losing record, has had more than one head coach in that period, and is planning to do a name change, then a logo change is extremely likely. If any one of these conditions are met, a logo change is possible. But, if all three are met, then you might want to wait until next season before spending $100 on a jersey, because there’s a high likelihood that by next year it will be a throwback. 

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