Pistons go all in on supporting Detroit and its culture. Here’s how

Detroit Free Press

The Detroit Pistons, who left Auburn Hills in 2017, are immersing themselves in the culture of their new home.

Attend a game at Little Caesars Arena, and you’ll find that nearly all of the programming showcases the city of Detroit.

The halftime performance often features a local musician or rapper.

The team mostly did away with the Kiss Cam this year because of COVID-19. But it’s been replaced by a “Swag Cam,” which zooms in on opulent displays of jewelry in the audience. Judging by reactions on social media, the new cam has been a big hit.

Plus a different business is advertised on the Jumbotron every night.

Did you see Dale Brown, the owner of Detroit Urban Survival Training, teaching self-defense tactics to the team’s mascot, Hooper, courtside?

Or Ty Davis of Dare to be /Yerself/ and Quinn Temple of Crispy C.R.E.A.M. clothing getting some time  on the Jumbotron during one of the games?

The latter two examples are not random. They are are part of an initiative called Shop313, which is part of an even larger effort of the NBA basketball team to embrace Detroit and Detroiters and help entrepreneurs.

A partnership between the Pistons and Shopify, Shop313 helps small business owners start and grow their businesses through extensive marketing campaigns, Shopify plug-ins for their websites, pop-up shops, advertisements during the games, and grants worth $10,000. Some business owners even get courtside seats.

Embracing its new surroundings was part of the Pistons’ plans after the team came back to Detroit, leaving The Palace in Auburn Hills after 29 years. .

“It starts first and foremost with Tom Gores and the ownership,” said Mike Zavodsky, chief business officer for the Detroit Pistons. “They’ve made it a point that this is a community asset — this being the team. So any and everything that we could do to lean in and support the community has been our No. 1  priority. I think during the pandemic, we started to really lean in heavy on small businesses.”

Jewelry from jerseys, dolls and more

The Pistons stepped into the jewelry industry with Amy Peterson, who is the owner of Rebel Nell at 1314 Holden St. The company seeks unique materials that are being discarded, preserves them then creates something new. The business, which started in 2013, says its goal is to “provide employment, equitable opportunity and wraparound support for women with barriers to employment.” Peterson said to date, the company has hired 34 women from shelters, and trained them during their time of employment through the company’s nonprofit Teach. Empower. Achieve. Training topics included finances, business education, housing resources and more.

Peterson’s company worked with the Pistons to create jewelry pieces out of repurposed jerseys, too, and the company also has a line of jewelry using pieces of the seats at the now-demolished Palace of Auburn Hills.

“We were able to create the jerseys with the most recent partnership, where they gave us jerseys from the Motor City collection, and we turn those into pieces that really are so cool and unique,” Peterson said. “It’s a special way to wear a jersey in a different form.” There also was a marketing and promotions campaign for the business.

The CEO of Healthy Roots Dolls, Yelitsa Jean-Charles, was present at the season opener. She is the creator of a Black doll with natural hair and launched it in 2019 with a goal to help “young Black girls fall in love with their hair.” The dolls can be found at Target, Macy’s and Camp, along with the company’s website at healthyrootsdolls.com. Jean-Charles filled out an application to participate in the Shop 313 campaign, and soon she found herself watching the game from the owner’s seat.

The Pistons held a digital marketing campaign for Healthy Roots Dolls, a pop-up shop at Little Caesars Arena, produced an audio reel, invited Healthy Roots to set up at a holiday market and the business was broadcast on the Jumbotron during a game.

“They are clearly very passionate about opportunities to amplify businesses in the city in meaningful ways,” said Jean-Charles, who is from New York and lives in Detroit. “I was driving back from Somerset mall, and saw my face on a billboard with other entrepreneurs.”

On-site and off-site pop-up shops

Bea’s Detroit, at 1533 Winder St., is an event and co-working space, along with a cafe, co-owned by Beatrice Wolnerman, 30. But another company formed out of the business venture called Bea’s Squeeze, which is a lemonade brand that offers three flavors: pink rose, lavender and classic. It started out as a lemonade stand outside the shop in Eastern Market, and officially became its own brand in 2019. Now, it can be found in 25 states in the U.S.

The Pistons reached out to the Wolnermans and together they hosted a Shopify 313 launch event at Bea’s Detroit. The Pistons have also been a part of promotional content.

“I believe it was back in August. (Pistons forward) Jerami Grant was here,” Wolnerman said. “There were a lot of other small businesses that were able to come into our space and utilize our warehouse and sell their items. It was a really great experience.”

Bea’s also was present at the Pistons’ home game against the Toronto Raptors Jan. 21, where company logos were placed throughout Little Caesars Arena and a pop-up shop was held for visitors to purchase lemonade.

Another business, Sana Detroit, which is known for being a unique mix between streetwear and sports brand, had the opportunity to work on a pair of customized shoes for Pistons team member Isaiah Stewart. The business was launched in 2021 by owner Michael Sana, 23, of Bloomfield Hills. At first, the brand started off as a fun project, but now, he’s getting subcontract licenses approved and is working with Detroit sports teams and their players.

The Pistons invited Sana Detroit to a pop-up shop in August, and another in December. The business did a pop-up shop every Saturday at the Somerset Collection in Troy, which attracted  about 160 people who waited in line each morning.

Sana said working with the Pistons helped solidify his brand and gave the company a new level of credibility.

“I was honestly very hesitant of doing (a pop-up shop), obviously because that was our first one,” Sana said. “And then when we saw the turnout, it was awesome. People were coming in and we were busy for just four hours straight.”

Beyond the city limits

The Pistons also are supporting  business ventures with suburban  entrepreneurs, such as Emily Walker, of Novi, formally of Inkster, who is the owner of the swimwear brand Nyna Noir. Walker works as a seamstress for the Pistons Dance Team, and she designs fashionable outfits for each game. She’s also teaching fashion and graphic design at Ecorse High School.

Walker was inspired by her grandmother and a neighbor, who are both seamstresses. She made things like pillows and doll clothes growing up, which led to the official launch of her brand in 2014. By 2015, she had an interview with the Pistons, and the relationship has grown since. The last two years have been the best for her.

“With the pandemic and everything going on, I’ve had more time to be more creative. The Pistons have Tyrel there now,” said Walker. “And Tyrel (Kirkham, Pistons VP of Brand & Marketing Strategy) is really jumping feet first into just letting us creatives be creative, and coming up with our own ideas. It’s them giving me creative control, and that’s what has made (the last two years) much better.”

Walker hopes there will be opportunities in the future to collaborate on designing clothes for the public.

“This Shopify platform really gave us the opportunity to tell the stories of all the people that we work with, so that you realize how authentic we actually are,” said Alicia Jeffreys, the Pistons’ senior vice president of marketing. “We use businesses in the city to do actual business things for the team, like create our dancers’ outfits. It’s not like we outsourced it to somebody in LA. It’s literally someone local, so that’s important to us.”

In Dearborn, the Custard Company, at 2801 Monroe St., is showing its team spirit with its Pistons Cone, a custard injected with blueberry sauce rolled in red and blue cookies.

Jamal Jawad, 32, of Dearborn Heights, is the owner of the ice cream shop that opened in July 2019. The shop is known for its sweet bun, a hot-pressed doughnut ice cream sandwich, and its loaded cone, a custard injected with a flavor of your choice.

The collaboration between the ice cream shop and the Pistons formed through TikTok, where the Custard Co. has a following of over 230,400. The two worked together to create TikTok videos to help each other’s accounts grow.

The Pistons shot a commercial in his shop, Jawad landed on billboards and he began catering some of the team’s events. The company also served custard samples at a basketball game during this season.

The collaboration has had a definite impact, Jawad said.

“We became verified on TikTok. … It brought people from all across Michigan to come try us out now. It’s crazy what they alone have done,” he said of his Pistons partners.

Programming with Detroit in mind

The Pistons’ many partnerships with local small businesses are one of several ways the franchise is making — and has made — an effort to further immerse itself into Detroit’s community and culture.

The team moved from Auburn Hills to Detroit in 2017, but didn’t relocate its headquarters until the Henry Ford Pistons Performance Center in Midtown finished construction  in 2019. Once the new offices opened later that summer, the marketing team began to brainstorm ways to get to know the city and refresh the team’s branding.

“Detroit creatives, artists, musicians, fashion design, literally, it’s just a breeding ground for talent,” Jeffreys said. “And so we just started to chip away and try to make some relationships and figure out who these folks are, that are our neighbors, and it’s been amazing.”

The Pistons have two dedicated members who work solely on influencer marketing. They’re both native Detroiters, and they’re responsible for many of the connections the team has been able to make with local business owners and celebrities. They network at local happy hours, events and pop-ups in the city.

Big Sean, who the Pistons hired as their creative director of innovation before the start of the 2020-21 season, has also been involved in the team’s brainstorming sessions. The team began bringing local rappers to games last season, which has expanded that aspect of the in-game experience this season. Babyface Ray performed at the home season opener against the Chicago Bulls on Oct. 20, and Big Sean eventually joined him at midcourt, unplanned. Sada Baby performed at the Motor City Cruise’s home opener. 42 Dugg, Peezy, Icewear Vezzo, Kash Doll, Payroll Giovanni and other well-known names in the local rap scene have attended games this season.

Jeffreys noted that the Pistons are both a sports and entertainment company, and they’re embracing the latter. Of Detroit’s four professional teams, she noted the NBA tends to skew younger and more diverse. It enables the marketing team to push the envelope further than what you might see at a Tigers or Lions game.

Whether the Pistons win or lose, the marketing team wants fans to have a good time.

“We literally wear Detroit across our chest, on our jerseys,” Jeffreys said. “And so we actually had a conversation internally, I remember having this conversation where we were like, ‘OK, we’re going to wear Detroit on the chest, we better make sure that we represent the city that we actually now have on our chest.’ We don’t play in Auburn Hills any longer. So it was very important to be super authentic in that regard. But artists like 42 Dugg, Sada Baby, you can’t have Detroit entertainment without including them.”

The culture push has extended off the court, as well. The Pistons partnered with Legends shortly before the start of the 2020-21 season to launch a new lifestyle-inspired clothing brand and a new apparel website, Pistons313shop.com.

Last season, the Pistons launched apparel themed after the ’90s sitcom “Martin,” which was set in Detroit. There are currently no plans to bring the “Martin” promotion back, but the team is planning new collaborations that’ll launch this season.

As for the future, the marketing team will continue to brainstorm. But certain aspects of their community push, such as Shop313, are here to stay and could be adopted by other teams as well.

“I’ve gotten calls from at least half the league, asking about the program, how they can, set it up and run it in their market,” Zavodsky said. “The league has asked us to present this platform to all the teams at the upcoming MBA sales marketing meeting. So again, it’s a great program, and one hopefully that people can replicate in their other markets.

“Probably in the next couple of months, we’re going to talk about what does our 2022-23 brand campaign look like,” Jeffreys added. “And the first place we’re going to start is, ‘what’s hot in the city? What’s going on in the city? What are things we should lean into?’ And that’ll drive our inspiration for the next campaign. So we’re not going to look far, we’re going to literally look in our backyard and go from there.”

Contact Omari Sankofa II at osankofa@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @omarisankofa. The Free Press has started a new digital subscription model. Here’s how you can gain access to our most exclusive Pistons content. Read more on the Detroit Pistons and sign up for our Pistons newsletter.

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