Michael McCullough, executive vice president and chief marketing officer for the Miami Heat, recalls sitting in the Las Vegas airport one evening in January 2018. He had just come from the NBA’s annual retail and licensing meetings and was anxiously waiting to see how people would react to the franchise’s new uniform.
Nike had just supplanted Adidas as the league’s official apparel provider and introduced “City Edition” uniforms, allowing teams to channel the aesthetic of their respective cities through unique designs. The Heat went for a predominantly white jersey, with “laser fuchsia” and “blue gale” accents, featuring “Miami” script across the chest in the same font of the sign that hung on the team’s first venue, Miami Arena, from 1988 to 1999.
The Heat named the new jersey “Vice,” also paying homage to the famous police serial, which has become so identified with the city. And as its midnight Eastern release approached, McCullough was in Vegas, tracking the initial sales from his phone alongside Andy Montero, the team’s vice president of retail business and development.
“Vice launches and I thought something was wrong, because the numbers were changing so fast. It was like a rocket that kept going and going,“ McCullough recently recalled. “I’m like, ‘This can’t be right.’ We’re on the phone with our data people and they’re like, ‘No … this s— is on fire.’ … Andy got on the phone right then with Nike and was like, ‘We want more jerseys. We need to order more.’ To me, that was the ‘aha’ moment.”
Miami went on to sell more Vice jerseys during the 2017-18 season than the City Edition uniforms of all other 29 NBA teams combined. And it didn’t stop there. In each of the past four seasons, the Heat have extended the Vice series with a new uniform: a black “Vice Nights” edition, a fuchsia “Sunset Vice” edition (the first all-pink uniform in NBA history), a blue “ViceWave” edition and its latest gradient look, called “ViceVersa,” that the team has worn this season.
Miami’s last home game of the regular season Thursday against the Philadelphia 76ers marks the end of this storied uniform era. The Heat will suit up in Vice jerseys for what may be the final time as the team prepares to head in a different direction with its uniforms in this year’s playoffs and next season.
“We had a plan,” said Jennifer Alvarez, the Heat’s vice president for creative and digital marketing, recalling the progression of designs. “We knew we were going white, black, fuchsia and blue. … Then we asked, ‘Are we telling the Vice story in its totality?’ That’s where ViceVersa came from. We were wrapping a bow around the entire program. … It was important that we go out on top with Vice. We want people to miss it. We want it to be this really incredible moment and potentially position us so that we could explore what it looks like in the future.”
The foundation of the five-uniform Vice series actually began in 2004, when All-Star Shaquille O’Neal was traded from the Los Angeles Lakers to the Heat to join forces with the 22-year-old Dwyane Wade. In 2005, inspired by the defunct American Basketball Association’s Miami Floridians franchise, the Heat introduced a 1970s-era black uniform, featuring magenta and orange striping down one side. They wore them until 2006. The uniform returned in white in 2012 during the Heat’s Big Three era, led by Wade, LeBron James and Chris Bosh.
“The Floridians uniform was when we introduced the concept of creating a whole different uniform identity for our team. We got the bug back then. We enjoyed it. That was fun for us. And we saw a result from sales,” McCullough said. “By the time we got to Nike taking over and City Edition being a thing, it wasn’t our first rodeo. We told Nike we were ready. We told the NBA we were ready. And, basically, that we were gonna run with Vice.”
At the start of 2018, the Heat’s roster didn’t have a major star, with rookie Bam Adebayo still two years removed from his first All-Star appearance in 2020. Then, two weeks after the debut of the Heat’s first Vice uniform, the Cleveland Cavaliers traded Wade back to Miami. On Feb. 9, 2018, Wade’s first night back with the Heat, the white edition of the Vice jersey awaited in his locker. (He’d play the final 93 games of his career there, wearing three editions of the team’s Vice uniforms before retiring in 2019.)
“I remember when we got D-Wade back, we didn’t know if we were gonna get his jersey in time,” recalled longtime Heat equipment manager Rob Pimental. “Our jerseys are all made out in Portland. Nike has a deal with a company that puts the names and numbers on them for us. The owner had D-Wade’s jersey made, then she got on a plane and flew it to Miami to make sure the jersey got here. We didn’t know if it was gonna make it by FedEx.
“That was a key moment of the Vice uniforms that was unique. To me, it was one of the highlights of my career. D-Wade … he is the Miami Heat. So it was nice to see that name and number hanging again … to see the guy come home and return in that uniform.”
From the white iteration to the black to the pink and blue, the theme of Vice — and the colors that made the uniforms pop on the hardwood — became synonymous with the Heat.
“Tyler Herro gets drafted by the Miami Heat, wearing this frickin’ Vice-colored suit!” McCullough said. “He comes to Miami and the first thing that he asks is, ‘Hey, man, can I get my picture taken in one of those Vice uniforms?’ That’s what he wanted. … The first thing that we showed Jimmy Butler, when he came to Miami for his visit, is a Vice uniform. He wanted to see himself in a Vice uniform.”
Interestingly, the Heat’s marketing department has discovered that design and style – not necessarily talent and stardom – have driven sales. According to figures provided by the team, in the four seasons of the Big Three era from 2010 to 2014, the Heat sold 190,000 jerseys. In the four seasons of the Vice era from 2018 to 2021, Miami has sold 245,000 total jerseys. Total revenue of the Vice era has doubled that of the Big Three era with more than $25 million in sales, according to the team.
“That was such a great revelation,” Alvarez said. “Because, historically, you look at the top jersey sales across the league, year after year, and it’s player-driven. The year that we released our first Vice uniform, we proved that the design on the front of a jersey can actually be just as powerful, if not more powerful, than the name on the back.”
In December 2020 alone, the Heat’s final ViceVersa installment accounted for one-third of the NBA’s total jersey sales revenue during the holiday season, generating $2.1 million, according to the team.
“We’ve incorporated Vice so much into our brand that it’s not a secondary uniform or a secondary logo or a secondary colorway anymore,” McCullough said. “It is the Heat colorway. We made it part of the Heat brand.”
In May 2020, ESPN ranked the Vice collection (before the debut of the ViceVersa edition) at No. 8 on the list of the top 74 jerseys in the history of the NBA.
After experiencing so much success — with more than 650,000 Vice-themed items sold accounting for 67% of the franchise’s retail revenue, according to the Heat — it’s been difficult for McCullough to shy away from the million-dollar question.
“A ton of people keep asking us, ‘Why don’t you just make Vice the Heat’s permanent colors?’ ” said McCullough. “And I’m not gonna say we don’t have those conversations internally, because we do. And will we continue to have those conversations? Absolutely. … But that’s a big decision, right? You’re talking about the total identity of a brand. There’s an over 30-year history with this team and there’s a lot of equity in red, black and white. We won our first championship in red. That red uniform here has a lore. That’s a long-term decision that we have to make, and you don’t want to make it just because you’ve had a lot of success with this run of uniforms. Having said that, it’s not out of the question though.”
For now, the Heat’s Vice era will draw to a close on Thursday, when Pimental hangs the uniform in each player’s locker at AmericanAirlines Arena in Miami.
“It’s bittersweet,” he said. “But every good thing comes to an end.”
“As much as we love Vice, we really love what’s coming,” McCullough said. “What’s next is going to blow people’s minds. The players saw it for the first time earlier this week and they love it. They can’t wait to wear it. We can’t wait to drop this one on people. Because it’s something that’s never been done before with a uniform.”
That’s a pretty high bar. But the Heat have shown with Vice that they know how to clear it.