June 22, 2021, was a joyous evening for the Detroit Pistons. Team employees gathered at the Pistons Performance Center in Midtown for the NBA draft lottery, culminating in cheers from the office as the franchise won the lottery and secured the No. 1 pick for the first time since 1970, signaling a new era for the organization.
The following day, the business and marketing side of the organization began to see the immediate impact that comes with having the No. 1 pick. The week of the lottery was the Pistons’ best single week of ticket sales in nearly four years, the previous high coming when the team traded for Blake Griffin in January 2018.
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The 2021 NBA draft won’t take place until July 29, and the Pistons are still progressing through their pre-draft process. The possibility of drafting Oklahoma State star Cade Cunningham — the near-consensus top prospect — has already driven significant fan interest for the Pistons.
Despite finishing 2020-21 with a 20-52 record, there were signs of growth for the organization both on the court and behind-the-scenes. The new task for the franchise is to build on the optimism that this past season brought to the fanbase. With the No. 1 pick in tow, the franchise is eager to keep the momentum going.
“The general excitement about what’s happening, you can feel it in the market and you can feel it when you talk to people,” Pistons chief business officer Mike Zavodsky said. “It’s tangible.”
‘A great story to tell’
General managerTroy Weaver promised a “restoring” for the Pistons when he was hired as general manager last June, and refreshed nearly the entire roster once he was able to make trades in the fall. Many of the early returns have been positive. Two Pistons — Isaiah Stewart and Saddiq Bey — made the All-Rookie team as well as the USA Basketball Select Team. Jerami Grant received All-Star consideration in the midst of a breakout season, finished as runner-up in Most Improved Player voting and is now on the main U.S. men’s basketball roster.
Concurrent with the roster changes was a new branding strategy for the organization. The Pistons launched their “D-Up” campaign last November: It’s geared around promoting the city of Detroit and striking partnerships with local influencers and national brands. It also introduced a new online store, Pistons313shop.com.
The marketing team was tasked with building the brand of the players and finding ways for the Pistons to resonate with the fanbase, even as losses piled up. They succeeded, as merchandise sales increased 250% compared to the previous year, Zavodsky said. And the biggest driver wasn’t jersey sales, but brand collaborations.
One example is their partnership with Martin Lawrence to launch a clothing line based on his hit 90s sitcom based in Detroit, “Martin.” The promotion was coupled with an in-arena “Martin”-themed night at Little Caesars Arena on May 14, including a highlight of Pistons players reenacting the opening of the show, shown on the Jumbotron during the game.
“The ability to properly tell our story really resonated with the consumer, and they have really gravitated towards the product,” said Tyrel Kirkham, the Pistons’ vice president of brand & marketing strategy. “The best part of it is that we’re just scratching the surface. ‘Martin’ happened toward the end of the season, and most teams would probably hold that for next year. But we wanted to continue to build on what we’re doing, and there truly will be no breaks as we head into the offseason.”
Cashing in on ‘Beef Stew’
The marketing team also found ways to capitalize on non-jersey player merchandise. Once “Beef Stew” became the colloquial nickname for Stewart, the Pistons partnered with America’s Test Kitchen to film an episode with chef (and Detroit native) Elle Simone Scott made beef stew with Stewart and Rick Mahorn.
“I definitely think undoubtedly the on-court product is always going to impact the business,” Kirkham said. “All the recognizable names it’s going to drive. However, we take pride in manufacturing moments and building our player’s brands, even if they may not be as well-known. Take Isaiah Stewart, for example. We leaned in and fans nicknamed him ‘Beef Stew.’ We create product, we create some really cool content in partnership with America’s Test Kitchen, and that ends up being one of our best-sellers in e-commerce throughout the year.”
The on-court product has a chance to improve significantly next season. If the Pistons select Cunningham, he would immediately become the team’s most talented draft pick since Grant Hill was selected No. 3 overall in 1994. Draft analysts consider him to be a franchise player. He’s close to being a perfect modern offensive player, and fans are already putting down money to watch him play next season.
Even if the Pistons trade down — and the odds of it happening are slim — they would hadd a future star. USC big man Evan Mobley and G League Ignite wing Jalen Green are talented enough to be in the conversation, and pundits are high on their trajectory.
Both Zavodsky and Kirkham are newer additions to the business side of the organization. Zavodsky was hired last June, and Kirkham joined the Pistons last August. They’ve seen the team change almost completely within their short time with the franchise. They’re excited to see what will come next.
“I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t exciting,” Zavodsky said. “Troy’s given us a great story to tell. He’s assembling a great unit of players who are also good people, I think that’s an important piece and why the fanbase has gravitated around them. And I think it’s our job on the business side of the house to not only tell that story, but give people other reasons to like the brand and gravitate towards it.”