On the court, the Miami Heat haven’t found consistent success since LeBron James’ sudden departure in 2014, failing to string together back-to-back winning seasons or win 50 games in a year. On Wednesday, they opened the NBA Finals with a 116-98 loss to James and the Los Angeles Lakers.
But off the court, the Heat haven’t slowed down. Unlike the Cleveland Cavaliers (where James returned after his South Beach stint), their revenue and franchise value never dipped over the last six years, according to Forbes. And an annual survey conducted by the consulting firm Brand Keys reported that although the Heat’s fan loyalty dipped from a high of first in the NBA in 2013 to ninth-best in 2016 after Dwyane Wade left for the Chicago Bulls, it rebounded to sixth in 2018, fourth last year, and second in 2020 even before the team pulled off three straight upsets to reach the Finals this summer.
Emory University marketing professor Michael Lewis, meanwhile, has his own NBA brand ranking, including a metric measuring teams’ global social following standardizing for a number of baseline factors. As of his most recent report, the Heat were second in the league, trailing only their Finals opponent, the 16-time NBA champion Lakers.
“The state of Florida is somewhat of a disaster for fan loyalty,” Lewis said, largely because two-thirds of residents are non-native (compared to just 25 percent in Ohio). “I’m kind of fascinated that the Heat have done as well as they have.”
Heat CMO Michael McCullough attributed the brand’s resiliency not to any decision made after he learned James was skipping town, but instead to the groundwork laid well before the Heatles arrived in town.
McCullough joined Miami in 1997, when the franchise was less than 10 years old and president and head coach Pat Riley had been around for only two seasons. “We were a bit of a mess on the marketing side,” McCullough said. “Pat had established what his brand for the team was going to be, and we needed to… really amplify what he was trying to do. That’s really the secret sauce right there. We’ve never really strayed from how he wanted his team to be portrayed—the hardest-working, most professional, most unselfish, toughest, meanest, nastiest, most disliked team in the NBA.”
Early on, Riley was the brand. In McCullough’s first seven years in town, the Heat won just two playoff series. Then Shaquille O’Neal arrived. The Heat won 59 games the following year and took home Miami’s first Larry O’Brien Trophy in 2006.
Suddenly, marketing was easy—for a time.
Two years later, an injury-plagued Wade missed significant time, O’Neal was traded, Alonzo Mourning retired, Riley resigned as head coach, and the Heat finished a league worst 15-67.
“Once we hit the wasteland and everybody decided to go away a little bit, we didn’t have a pipeline,” McCullough said. “When we came back in 2010, we had that learning. When we got [James, Wade and fellow free agent Chris Bosh] to commit, the impetus was to raise prices hard and sell out everything on season tickets and walk away. But we’d already gone down that path once. We learned our lesson.”
Miami still raised prices, but it also offered three-year agreements that locked in rates. It used time in the international spotlight to highlight the Heat’s culture as much as its stars. The only marketing push that focused solely on the Big 3, McCullough said, was their infamous welcome bash.
In a league increasingly dominated by player movement, “how do you sustain through the ups and downs?” he said. “You don’t take full advantage when you’re up there, and that saves you from totally bottoming out.”
Dating back to 2010, the Heat now have a sellout streak of 450 games, the second-longest active run in the league. “It used to be in sports that if you win championships, that’s what keeps people around and if you lose, people go away for a while,” said Windy Dees, a sports administration associate professor at the University of Miami. “Now, marketing and branding is about building a community that people want to be involved in, win or lose.”
Miami’s branding efforts have also helped the team return to championship contention.
As Riley rebuilt in James’ wake, he relied on developing overlooked talent. While the Lakers regularly roll out three first overall picks, the Heat’s highest drafted player among its top six contributors is this year’s 13th pick, Tyler Herro. Along the way, a culture-first brand allowed the franchise to maintain its messaging as rosters turned over, with the exception of Udonis Haslem.
Then, last offseason, the Heat landed a bona fide star. Why did five-time All Star Jimmy Butler take his talents to South Beach?
“I kept hearing about this culture,” Butler said during his introductory press conference. “I need that in my life.”