The NBA Embraces High Art

Cleveland-born artist Daniel Arsham has recently joined the Cleveland Cavaliers to become the franchise’s creative director, a unique position among major sports franchises.

Cleveland-born artist Daniel Arsham has recently joined the Cleveland Cavaliers to become the franchise’s creative director, a unique position among major sports franchises. Arsham will be stepping in to upgrade the Cavs’ visual brand identity, so his role will entail modifying court designs, crafting new apparel and uniforms, and redesigning several public basketball courts throughout Cleveland. Digitally, he will also provide input for videos and graphics in partnership with the Cavs’ esports team. Regarding this opportunity, in his letter announcing the hire, Arsham expressed that “basketball, as a global phenomenon, has been a recurring theme in my work” and asked, “what can be achieved if we look at the NBA [National Basketball Association] from the perspective of the fans’ visual experience?”

While the Cavs’ hiring of an artist like Arsham is the first of its kind, it is not too surprising. By partnering with the artist, the Cavs are continuing a trend that the NBA has already begun: expanding their influence on fashion. As one of the most respected contemporary artists today, Arsham frequently employs elements of architecture, performance, and sculpture to his artworks and is a relevant figure in the realms of pop culture, having previously collaborated with Pharrell Williams, Porsche, Dior, and Uniqlo. His pieces have already been displayed at Cleveland’s Rocket Mortgage Arena, and he has worked with the Cavs on small projects in the past.

As part of their movement into fashion, the league has already signed a multi-year partnership with luxury brand Louis Vuitton to create a menswear capsule and the NBA championship trophy case. High fashion has become a priority for players too, with players like Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Russell Westbrook donning extravagant “tunnel fits,” the outfits in which players arrive at the arena which have become an essential part of the league’s pre-game routine. Fashion has become a unique way for players to express their character and adds to young fans’ increasing interest in the league. Not only does the NBA share highlights on platforms like Instagram, outfit pictures also feature prominently on the official NBA account and well-followed accounts such as “Leaguefits.” Teams are also releasing new NBA jerseys that stray away from each franchise’s traditional colors and designs to add an extra layer of visual appeal to the game. Such jerseys can be polarizing, but at the very least, they attract more eyeballs. The Brooklyn Nets, for instance, have released special jerseys inspired by Biggie Smalls and Jean-Michel Basquiat, both Brooklyn icons, that incorporate pop culture into basketball apparel and all franchises have begun releasing special edition “City” jerseys that pay homage to their hometown with an experimental design.

This signing will open up a special pathway and establish a blueprint for other artists to collaborate with NBA teams. It gives an opportunity for less-popular teams with unfavorable geographical locations or that lack superstar players to gain recognition, which could potentially help attract name-brand free agents in the future. Come 10, 20, or even 50 years, team locations may not be a deciding factor in free agents’ decisions, as the team’s fashionability will be more impactful. For teams with deeply-rooted traditions like the Los Angeles Lakers or the Boston Celtics, this trend opens up an opportunity to attempt new styles and maintain their cultural relevance. Fundamentally, Arsham’s role could pave a way for increased attention on the NBA and help the league further position itself as a pop cultural monolith as well. An already expanding league, the NBA could establish basketball as the most popular sport globally.


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