The mainstreaming of streetball

Beneath the hoop, four brawny, shirtless streetballers are gathered. The one clutching the basketball starts bouncing it as he chats with his chums. Seconds later, the camera shifts to the famous Fruit of the Loom 'Fruit Guys.'

Beneath the hoop, four brawny, shirtless streetballers are gathered. The one clutching the basketball starts bouncing it as he chats with his chums. Seconds later, the camera shifts to the famous Fruit of the Loom ‘Fruit Guys.’

You know the ones: the age-old grape and apple mascots for the Bowling Green, Ky.-based basic apparel (read: undies and T-shirts) manufacturer. They’re back, after a five-year hiatus and, in order to modernize their image, they’re about to play some serious ball in a new TV spot titled ‘Shirts.’

‘Yo, how ’bout some four-on-four,’ barks the Big Apple, in a playful, yet wholly contrived urban intonation. The foursome agree, but not before the Fruit Guys hand them some T-shirts, and some trash-talk. ‘[The shirts] are nice and soft, kinda like your game.’ A series of oohs and ahhs follow as the Fruit Guys goad their opposition – but when the game’s on, the hardcore ballers mop the floor with them.

Up until now, gritty streetball imagery has been used almost exclusively to sell shoes, sportswear and soft drinks. So what’s with Fruit of the Loom? When most marketers defend their choices for using similar imagery, they always arrive at the same conclusion: streetball resonates to their demographic because it’s authentic and ‘real.’ But is it still, now that guys in over-sized fruit suits use it?

‘It’s official, streetball has gone mainstream,’ says Greg Skinner, a youth consultant at Toronto agency John St., after hearing about the new Fruit Guys spot. ‘At this point, it’s showing up everywhere. Even Tony the Tiger is dribbling in a commercial. It’s no longer hardcore, so it’s palatable for the average populous.’

Dallas-based The Richards Group developed the ad for Fruit of the Loom which chose streetball not for its authenticity (even though they scoped out prospective ballers in gyms and playgrounds), but because of its accessibility.

‘This spot is for active wear, so we chose an active sport and streetball was the best one to choose since it’s so popular right across North America,’ explains John Shivel, VP of advertising and communications for Fruit of the Loom, admitting that the spot could be seen as a parody as well.

Despite cracking the mainstream, streetball and urban imagery can still work, and according to Skinner: ‘The real players don’t care,’ as long as it is done properly.

It’s no secret that urban imagery, like the streetball trend of today, has been used to sell sneakers to white suburbia, Skinner adds. Today, more and more suburbanites are wearing Hilfiger gear, backwards baseball caps and baggy pants. But why is this happening now? It’s not like streetball is new. As a matter of fact, it’s much older than Rucker Park.

‘The rough-and-tumble imagery is something that young people are gravitating to; they’re searching for something that’s a truer, more accurate profile of what they want,’ says Skinner. ‘I was just in [Toronto suburb] Oakville the other day and saw all these kids wearing And 1 gear, and I thought to myself, ‘What do they know about that brand?’ But they know all about it, and they know that streetball is pure – they can identify better with someone playing on the street than Michael Jordan scoring 50 points a game.’

So, if young consumers want real people in the ads, and streetballers provide that authenticity, how can a monolithic multinational–the complete opposite of everything bona fide–at least appear to be legitimate?

‘The sport is the gateway. The players, the moves, that’s the cool factor and that’s what the Nikes and the Reeboks are doing–playing on the cool factor,’ Skinner says, adding that Gatorade has done a good job of appearing authentic to the urban crowd in its latest commercials.

Streetball imagery in marketing can be traced back to 1993, with the inception of the And 1 brand. The Paoli, Pa.-based basketball shoe and clothing manufacturer struck a nerve with its now-famous ‘Mix Tape.’ An ensemble cast of real ballers from New York City to Philadelphia were filmed doing their tricks by And 1′s shaky, handheld camera. Soon, the tape was circulating across the U.S., into Canada and abroad, and was traded all over the Web.

The buzz put And 1 on the map. Now nine years later the company is on the fourth volume of the series and has NBA players like all-star Kevin Garnett (of the Minnesota Timberwolves) as endorsers. And 1′s icon, The Player, is a ‘faceless and raceless’ streetballer who ‘represents every kid who thinks he or she is the best player on the court,’ according to its Web site, and it oozes legitimacy to its demographic, says Skinner.

Soon enough, heavyweights like Nike and Reebok started to take notice. Since Michael Jordan’s retirement three years ago, endorsement hasn’t been the same. Today, there are no other athletes who could sell shoes the same way MJ once did, according to Max Valiquette, a youth consultant and president of Toronto’s Youthography.

Fifteen months ago, Nike’s ‘Freestyle’ spot aired across North America. It featured a cast of complete unknowns doing trick after trick in the And 1 tradition. It was a huge departure from its traditional spots; how could Nike do a basketball shoe commercial without the requisite NBA star? Well, the gamble worked and its success led to the retro ‘Rucker Park’ spots of today that feature Vince Carter among others, not playing NBA-style basketball, but streetball, on the infamous NYC street court.

‘Nike’s history in North America is steeped in basketball, and streetball is just one facet of our tradition,’ says Randy Weyersberg, Nike’s director of marketing in Thornhill, Ont. He rejects the notion that suburban wannabes are Nike’s target. ‘We pride ourselves on reaching those people who are actively engaged in the sport. There’s no question that Nike is authentic to the hard-core baller.’

Similar to Nike’s spots, Reebok has taken a shine to streetball as well over the last few years. It too has showcased baller trickery in its commercials. For 2003, Reebok is planning on a role reversal platform called ‘Rhythm and Sport,’ that plays on the free-flow of streetball that will have NBA star Allen Iverson, rapping, while hip hop icon Jadakiss puts on some freestyle streetball maneuvers.

For Micki Rivers, marketing manager for Mississauga, Ont.-based Reebok Canada, the reason streetball has risen to the mainstream is that it exudes a cool, hip image.

‘Authenticity is everything. We are a brand that has a heritage in sport and are the real deal. Streetball is an extension of that. It’s a representation of what the younger demo wants. They want the free-flow and it has to feel real for them to like it.’

Rivers explains that the freestyling – improvising on the spot, whether with a basketball or in hip hop lyrics – is what resonates.

‘The urban community likes things done their way,’ she adds.

Streetball also plays a huge role in promotional events. Nike’s Weyersberg is quick to point out the company was a major sponsor of the ’3-on-3 Streetball Challenge’ in 1993 and in 1995, and it has also sponsored the NBA’s Hoop It Up streetball event.

Adidas in the U.S. created the ‘All Day All Night’ streetball extravaganza in early July that pitted teams of three against each other over a 24-hour period. Commercials, showing real ballers from New York City streets, ran on stations like BET and Comedy Central, along with a print component in magazines like The Source and Slam.

However, streetball isn’t just for shoe and clothing manufacturers. Sprite, a brand of Coca-Cola, has been using urban imagery in its TV creative for some time in both Canada and the U.S., with more recent spots starring Toronto Raptor Jerome Williams. But perhaps the largest ‘celebration’ of urban life is the new Sprite Street Jam, a five-city event with streetball courts, hip-hop artists and graffiti exhibitions running during July and August in major Canadian cities.

David Vivenes, Sprite brand manager in Toronto, explains that streetball is symbolic of Sprite’s core message of ‘being true to yourself and trusting your instincts,’ as it is based on ‘individuality and personal expression.’ However, he feels streetball is not a passing trend, as others have dubbed it.

‘A lot of things in pop culture are trends and fads, but there are things that are relevant to young people; you just have to find them,’ he says. ‘If that deep connection isn’t there, then it won’t stand the test of time. The sport of basketball and especially streetball, have established themselves as relevant.’

Maintaining relevance to the young generation is paramount for marketers like Sprite and Nike. Yet, for Skinner, streetball is definitely not underground anymore.

‘It is a little played out; you need to keep the imagery fresh,’ he says. ‘There have to be new moves, a new soundtrack, maybe the lifestyle component can be mixed in a little more. Right now, it’s four or five brands using the same shots and the same imagery.’