The atmosphere is electric as Zion Williamson, the most talked about NBA prospect since LeBron James, steps off an elevator in New York and greets a screaming crowd in a narrow hallway.
Welcome to the 8th Annual SLAM Draft Suite, presented by AT&T. It’s a private, two-day event held in the funky Midtown Manhattan office of SLAM, the basketball media brand that has fused hoops and hip-hop since 1994.
Some of the top NBA draftees in recent years like Williamson, Anthony Davis and Lonzo Ball have kicked back at the event before ascending the stage with NBA Commissioner Adam Silver and putting on the cap of their new NBA team – a reflection of how the NBA Draft has become a golden opportunity for hoops brands like SLAM.
The NBA Draft, much like the NFL’s, has grown out of its sleepy roots into a much larger event in recent years. It’s part coming-out party for the brightest young college basketball stars; part networking opportunity for agents and corporate sponsors; part fiscal bonanza for host cities; part bacchanal for family, friends and entourages.
At SLAM’s private suite, draftees like Williamson can take a breather from the week-long craziness in the Big Apple. They trade gossip, grab a bite, listen to music. There’s free swag available from sponsors such as Levi’s, Stance, Bose and Dos Toros. They get some downtime in an increasingly crowded and hectic week.
The annual event accomplishes several business objectives, according to Adam Figman, editor-in-chief of SLAM. It creates a new revenue stream as sponsors clamor to get close to the next generation of NBA stars, while also enabling SLAM’s editors and writers to bond with players they’ll be covering for years.
“We basically make over an event space to feel authentic to the SLAM brand. We cover the walls, play music. And we have a bunch of sponsors that come in to bring all of the players exclusive custom gifts, “ explains Figman. “So it’s part gifting suite, part fun content moment with SLAM and part just a chance to relax. Grab some food and drink and take a seat. Just hang out, you know, during this draft week.”
The SLAM Draft Suite was just one of many sponsored events swirling around this year’s draft in New York. Among them:
— On Tuesday, Davis unveiled a new sponsorship deal with Frito-Lay’s Ruffles potato chips brand at the nearby NBA Store on Fifth Avenue. At the event, AD’s unveiled his own signature shoe: “The Ruffles Ridge Tops.”
— American Express is offering key clients a VIP hospitality program, including premium seats to the NBA Draft, an on-stage photo, access to the Larry O’Brien Championship trophy and dinner reception with an NBA player.
— ESPN’s NBA Insider Adrian “Woj” Wojnarowski will host a live Q&A for the league’s official watch sponsor Tissot Friday at the company’s 34th Street boutique.
Rob “Worldwide Wob” Perez of The Action Network, checked in at the SLAM Draft Suite himself on Wednesday. There’s money behind this trend, according to Perez.
Corporate brands want to put their names in and around NBA Draft events. “They’re popular and they get great feedback. It’s working — otherwise they wouldn’t do it any more.”
For members of the online #NBATwitter community, these annual events present an opportunity to meet in person, Perez added.
“I think it’s an excuse for #NBATwitter personalities to get together and not be keyboard warriors for a couple of hours,” he says.
Most NBA players have grown up on SLAM, notes Figman. Hanging out in the SLAM Draft Suite is a coming-of-age moment signifying they’re finally entering the NBA.
Sponsors want to be close to that as well. This year, AT&T served as presenting sponsor. Dos Toros Taqueria catered the food. Previous sponsors over the last five years include: Foot Locker, Spalding, MSG Networks, Bose headphones, Stance Socks and Mitchell & Ness.
Still, holding an event like this around the NBA Draft is easier said than done. Not many brands have the kind of street cred with ballers that SLAM has built up over 25 years. SLAM has become famous for producing sports journalists such as NBA insider Chris Haynes of Yahoo, Bleacher Report editor-in-chief Ben Osborne and Scoop Jackson of ESPN.
“This is the kind of event that not any brand can just do,” warns Figman. “You need relationships. You need the trust of the agents, and the managers, that this will be something that’s worthwhile.”
When Figman started at SLAM, the NBA Draft was, well, a Draft, without much else going on. He’s watched it grow as a corporate event year by year.
Now it’s a blizzard of parties, pressers and events leading up to Thursday’s big night aty the Barclays Center, where ESPN will present wall-to-wall coverage.
“It’s a massive week. All of the lottery players that are invited to the green room are really running from event to event, the Monday of Draft week until they’re drafted Thursday night,” Figman says. “Then on Friday, they’re on a plane to whatever city they get drafted from. So it’s become a crazy event.”
Since JDS Sports bought back SLAM in August of 2017, the focus has been on taking an iconic name and bringing it to life as a modern media property. In the twenty-two months since the acquisition, SLAM has doubled its audience and revenue, built a 7-figure merchandise unit, and now consistently ranks in the top 10 among sports media companies for driving monthly social actions.
Another note they are particularly proud of if that SLAM is also the most-followed sports media account on social by NBA players.
As for what’s next, Peter Robert Casey, CEO of JDS Sports, noted that the next twenty-two months will be spent doubling down on fresh content (shows, short-form and long-form storytelling), regular merch drops, and differentiated events as well as a push into licensing in both the near and long term.