The Charlotte Hornets are back in style, and retailers are cashing in on the retro-chic wave of nostalgia.
The purple and teal of Charlotte’s first NBA team grew popular in the early 1990s, even among people who couldn’t find the upstart city on a map. Now, as the decade’s style enjoys a resurgence, so too have the team’s jerseys, shirts and, most prominently, snapback hats.
Speculation in recent weeks that the team’s name could return to the Queen City has made the gear even hotter.
“It’s been on fire,” said Jason Hurley, assistant store manager of the Hat Shack at Concord Mills. “It flies off our shelves. It’s one of our top sellers.”
Panthers quarterback Cam Newton memorably donned a Charlotte Hornets cap while sitting courtside next to Michael Jordan in the Bobcats home opener this year – a Bobcats victory. Rap artist Fabolous also rocked a Hornets hat and teal shirt while performing in Charlotte for the Jordan Brand Classic this month. It “just felt right,” the rapper tweeted.
The dollar impact of the old brand’s return is difficult to determine.
NBA-licensed apparel brought in $3.1 billion last year, said Matt Powell, analyst for sports retail tracking firm SportScanInfo. The Charlotte Bobcats ranked last in the league in sales, with $50 million. By comparison, the Los Angeles Lakers sold $682 million, according to the firm’s data.
The league hasn’t released figures about defunct teams like the Charlotte Hornets, and the NBA wouldn’t comment.
But this much is clear: the Hornets’ resurgence is nationwide.
“It’s kind of a retro trend,” said Ira Mayer of EPM Communications, which regularly publishes a sports licensing report. Old team logos are in demand, he said. “People are starting to license them more heavily.”
In 2010, the Charlotte Hornets brand still created about $1 million in “impact value,” according to online marketing firm General Sentiment. The number is based on the brand’s exposure in the news and on social media sites.
In Charlotte, the comeback is tied to fond memories of the team the city was quick to embrace.
“When people see the items in retail stores, they get excited about it because it’s in a lot of people’s past,” said Jeff Brown, 28, who bought a Hornets hat on Thursday. “I grew up with the Hornets.”
Snapbacks and tattoos
The Hornets entered the league in the 1988-89 season as professional basketball was rising to the peak of its popularity. The city threw a parade when the league announced its expansion, giving Charlotte its first major league franchise.
With a roster anchored by 5-foot-3 Muggsy Bogues, Larry “Grandmama” Johnson, and Alonzo Mourning, the team led the NBA in attendance in eight seasons at the now-demolished Charlotte Coliseum on Tyvola Road.
At the same time, the Hornets purple-and-teal became a fashion craze around the country, the team’s Starter jackets and snapback hats found everywhere from elementary school bus stops to the Bronx.
But in a messy departure, owner and Kannapolis native George Shinn took the franchise to New Orleans in 2002. With the move, Hornets merchandize largely disappeared from Charlotte shelves.
Charlotte native Scotty Kent said the renaissance began about four years ago. He came across a fitted Charlotte Hornets hat on an obscure urban fashion website, bought it, and threw it in the back of his car. Before long, nearly a dozen people had stopped him to ask him about it.
“I had a guy offer me $100 for the hat in the middle of an intersection,” he said.
The ’90s retro look – think “Fresh Prince of Bel Air” – was back.
“The Charlotte Hornets hat has just exploded,” said Kent, who launched a campaign known as Bring Back the Buzz aimed at convincing the Bobcats to take back the name. “It’s all over everybody. It’s insane. It’s everywhere.”
Shinn ultimately sold the New Orleans team to the NBA in December 2010. And with that sale, a little buzz around the name was rekindled. Now the New Orleans Hornets’ new owner, Tom Benson, says he wants to shed the team’s name in favor of something with a Big Easy feel – and that has fueled more demand for the purple and teal.
“A few years back, it was kind of hard for you to get your hands on it. People were forced to online shop,” said Ade Vanderhorst, 29, a Charlotte hip-hop artist and songwriter who uses the stage name Royal-Tee. He counts hats, T-shirts, jackets, bobbleheads and even a tattoo in his Hornets collection.
“Now, it’s so socially accepted to the point where you even see celebrities on TV (wearing a Hornets hat).”
Jordan and the Bobcats management haven’t commented on whether they’d consider a name change for the team – whose 7-56 record is the worst in the NBA. Changing the name could take up to two years and cost as much as $10 million.
Meanwhile, the vintage purple and teal keeps selling.
At Lids in SouthPark, store manager Adrian Splawn had to have Charlotte Hornets hats rerouted to his store from others in the chain just to keep up.
“It’s hard to keep them in stock,” he said.
National brands are diving in as well. Adidas now sells Charlotte Hornets shirts, including a throwback Johnson shirt.
LeBron James launched a purple-and-teal Nike shoe last month, nominally based on his former youth basketball team but doubtlessly inspired by the resurgence of the Charlotte brand.
The day it was released, March 31, it sold out from the House of Hoops by Reebok store in SouthPark Mall.
Vanderhorst said he recently wandered in to a store in the Bronx while there for an audition and saw the selection dominated by purple and teal.
“I saw more Charlotte Hornets snapbacks in this one particular store than any other team,” he said. “People are willing to spend 25, 30, 40 dollars for a vintage piece with the Charlotte Hornets on it. It has a lot to do with the colors; it has a lot to do with what that team meant to the city.”
The resale market has been active as well.
A search for “Charlotte Hornets” on Amazon.com brings up 1,600 items. On EBay, there are more than 3,000. In Charlotte, vintage Hornets items are posted on Craigslist every day.
Ryan Dulina, 28, has sold several Hornets items in recent months, including a prized jacket.
“I paid $120 for the jacket years and years ago,” Dulina said. “I think I made more when I sold it than I paid when I bought it.”