Miami Heat

Is Heat Nation on the rebound after LeBron’s local reign?

Heat Nation T-shirts for fans are set on every seat before the season opening NBA game against the Washington Wizards at the AmericanAirlines Arena in Miami on Wednesday, October 29, 2014.
Heat Nation T-shirts for fans are set on every seat before the season opening NBA game against the Washington Wizards at the AmericanAirlines Arena in Miami on Wednesday, October 29, 2014. El Nuevo Herald

Two young women ride the elevator up to the 100 level of AmericanAirlines Arena. It’s the end of the first quarter of the Heat’s seventh preseason game, a 95-80 romp over the Houston Rockets on Oct.21 in Miami before the start of the regular season, and the women are just arriving.

One of the women is wearing a necklace with a tiny gold pendant that’s a replica of the Larry O’Brien NBA Championship trophy. She adjusts the pendant so it faces outward, and her friend mocks her for her superstition.

The woman with the necklace waves a hand dismissively.

“Hey, it worked the last time I wore it,” she said, referring to her previous outing at AmericanAirlines Arena, back in June of 2013.

“And we need all the help we can get.”

Something funny happened to the Heat fan base when LeBron James left Miami to return to his hometown Cleveland Cavaliers.

The woman with the necklace is a good example. She wasn’t at the Heat’s preseason game out of pity for a team she believes could use a pick-me-up from its fans. She was there heeding a call to action.

She is part of the Heat fan base who reacted positively when Heat owner Micky Arison sent out a “Message to Heat Nation” in June, reasserting his dedication to Miami and reassuring fans of future success.

President of business operations Eric Woolworth and Heat chief marketing officer Michael McCullough were inundated with emails, letters and tweets from loyal fans after Arison’s message went out.

“There’s this concept out there,” Woolworth said, “particularly in the national media — [NBA analyst] Bill Simmons took a shot at us — that the arena’s going to be half empty, and I think our fans feel that. I think they want to give Bill Simmons and the rest of the national media a collective ‘screw you,’ for lack of a better way to say it.”

That group is a distinct part of the fan base, made up of longtime Heat fans who perhaps weren’t as supercharged before.

Now, they’re reinvigorated at the prospect of proving that James isn’t the only one loyal to his hometown.

So Woolworth and McCullough glommed on to the obviously effective “Heat Nation” sentiment, and the “Heat Lifer” moniker that came with it.

A creative concept took form. Banners were unveiled, a hashtag was born, and new promotional videos emphasizing pride in Miami’s culture were shot.

As teams that have lost a star usually do, the Heat sold itself as a unit, emphasizing a win-by-committee approach.

McCullough said that although there is a much stronger marketing effort behind Heat Nation this year, branding the team on the business side hasn’t changed much.

“Around town, you’re going to see all sorts of imagery supporting Heat Nation, you’re going to see how we’re presenting our players with a look of ‘we have these big, giant chips on our shoulders,’” McCullough said.

“From the players, from the owners, basketball operations, to our fan base, everybody feels like we have something to prove. We’ve been challenged, and we respond to challenge very positively.”

The team to see

Woolworth, for his part, has to prove he can still fill AmericanAirlines Arena on game nights.

He saw a galvanized fan base partly as an opportunity to keep attendance rates in the league’s top five, where they have been since 2011, sans James.

McCullough saw similar evidence of a hungry fan base — he said the team gained 1.4 million followers on social media this summer — and Woolworth added ”a couple hundred” season tickets at full price in August.

The tickets sold out in three days. Woolworth anticipates a sold-out house every game this season, although no figures on ticket sales were available.

Woolworth also said the Heat’s partial-plan sales have eclipsed what the organization sold last season, as well as the season before that. Additionally, patrons who signed up for three-year season-ticket plans in December 2012 should help maintain a bottom line for attendance.

Finally, the team benefits from patrons who signed up for three-year season-ticket plans in December 2012.

Woolworth and McCullough have their loyal fan base figured out, but the casual fan still poses a marketing test.

As a worldwide phenomenon, James drew in hordes of international fans.

Even now, they head to the back of the Heat store at AmericanAirlines Arena and sift through the lone rack of LeBron James jerseys, all of which are marked 50 percent off.

For that fan base, Heat Nation had to get a whole lot bigger than Miami. The plan is simple, and it didn’t require adjustment: continue to bill the Heat, as a unit, as the team to see in the city.

“If people pay attention to the Heat, and our basketball guys are adamant about this, we are the Miami Heat,” McCullough said. ”We were never LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, we, we [the Heat’s front office] never said anything about the Big3.

“Because players come and go, and we don’t market specific players, we don’t market wins and losses, we market the Miami Heat. We have a brand, we have a culture. LeBron talked about taking that culture and bringing it to Cleveland. Well, we kept the culture. It’s still here. We are marketing as we have always been marketing.”

Still there

James leaving may have reinvigorated part of the fan base, but the rest of the group’s makeup hasn’t significantly changed.

Even now, for every Dwyane Wade die-hard, there’s a fan who only started watching basketball because of James. There are those casual fans who claim allegiance for no other reason than they grew up in Miami. There are those who have the means to attend multiple regular-season games a year and will, depending on how things go.

None of those fans said James’ absence wouldn’t change their commitment to the Heat.

“I think obviously LeBron was a huge factor, he was a huge part of the team, a huge draw to the team,” Miami native Alex Dubon said. “He’s the reason I gravitated toward the Heat, because I wasn’t really much of a basketball fan until he joined and they had something special.

“But I think Dwyane Wade still has a lot to offer, there’s still something there. The whole team isn’t just one player.”

So while those who became Miami fans because of James are willing to go along for the ride this year, the sentiment among die-hard fans can skew slightly bitter.

On the one hand, lifelong Heat fans said they’re relieved — often in that way you’re relieved to have so much free time after getting laid off — to get back to basketball.

“LeBron James farted and it was front-page news,” one fan said.

On the other hand, lifelong fans are looking forward to seeing more attention on their homegrown heroes. They describe the fan community as optimistic for now, but they know it’s early.

People such as self-described superfan Monica Martinez, of Miami, is wary of a wavering Heat community down the line.

”We’ll see what happens now with the whole season, and I really hope Miami steps up,” Martinez said. A true Miami fan is not going to be like, ‘LeBron left, screw it.’

“You live here, you have to be behind something, you might as well be behind somebody. Why not Dwyane Wade and Udonis Haslem?”

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