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Inside the Charlotte Hornets’ Hive of Innovation

From a jersey sponsorship deal with MrBeast to the NBA’s first virtual team store, the Charlotte Hornets continue to break ground under new ownership.

Since Michael Jordan agreed to sell a majority stake in the Charlotte Hornets to a group led by Gabe Plotkin and Rich Schnall in June, the team has unveiled innovations from a jersey patch to the team store, aimed at engaging younger fans around the world.

Charlotte signed a multi-year jersey patch sponsorship deal with MrBeast’s Feastables, joining forces with a native and burgeoning entrepreneur who happens to have the world’s largest YouTube following (204 million subscribers). The Hornets also partnered with conversational AI company MeetKai to build the NBA‘s first shoppable virtual team store that’s an exact digital replica of the team store inside Spectrum Center.

photo by David Jensen/Getty Images

These two initiatives both launched prior to the team’s season-opening win at home earlier this week against Atlanta.

“With new ownership, there’s a new energy,” Hornets’ chief marketing officer Seth Bennett told Boardroom. “And we’re excited about that.”

MrBeast’s Feastables line of chocolate bars is an upstart brand targeting Gen-Z and Generation Alpha, looking for market share in an ultra-competitive legacy landscape.

The Hornets have worked with MrBeast before on local activations, and they thought it made perfect sense for both companies to reach fan bases they otherwise wouldn’t.

One of the Hornets’ responsibilities, Bennett said, was to bring in generational fans who will support the team for decades.

He believes the Feastables relationship will help accomplish that, with hopes that the jersey patch could become a new fashion status symbol along with their new throwback uniforms.

“Back In the ’90s, you had that purple and teal Starter jacket that was iconic and everybody wanted it. It didn’t matter if you were in North Carolina or not,” Hornets Chief Revenue Officer Jacob Gallagher told Boardroom. “As we’ve seen this launch and the interest around the jersey, this could be the next iteration of that Starter jacket.”

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A modern icon with an even more modern patch partner.

“MrBeast is obviously a big fan who wants to both support the team and see the success of the Feastables brand,” Gallagher said, adding there are ongoing conversations on how the Hornets and MrBeast can further collaborate. “He understands the value he brings to the table paired up with our brand.”

The Virtues of Virtual Venues

After being one of the first NBA teams to mint NFTs, the Hornets’ strategy and innovation arm considered a few options for its next digital campaign.

Charlotte’s first priority was enhancing the Spectrum Center experience. Ideas included getting fans different views of the arena, or a sales tool for people to look at seats. Ultimately, the team decided that building out an exact digital replica of the arena’s team store provided the best of both worlds.

The Hornets first needed to have discussions and debates over their collective comfort with stepping foot into the AI space, given its inherent risks. But Bennett said the Charlotte brass trusted MeetKai’s track record on this cutting-edge technology. And so the process began in February, with the team working with MeetKai to build this store out.

via Charlotte Hornets

Plotkin and Schnall’s overarching message as new majority stakeholders centered on making the business better, improving the fan experience, growing the fan base globally, and changing the game within the industry.

The virtual team store checked all those boxes.

About a dozen Hornets staffers from different team departments contributed to ensure that the look, feel, and design of the team store was a twin experience with the physical Spectrum Center location. The Hornets and MeetKai then worked with e-commerce partner Fanatics to ensure each virtual purchase could be physically delivered to fans’ homes.

Through the first 10 days of the virtual fan shop’s opening on Oct. 9, more than 3,100 unique users from more than 60 different countries — led by the US, Mexico, and the UK — perused its digital shelves, per a Hornets spokesperson. The Hornets proved to have national reach as well, with Raleigh the only North Carolina city other than Charlotte among the top 10 to visit the site the most.

More than 60% of visitors clicked on at least one item, and more than 7% clicked the “Buy Now” button that directed them to the Fanatics site for checkout.

Brandon Miller #24 of the Charlotte Hornets looks into the distance during the second half of a basketball game against the Atlanta Hawks at Spectrum Center on Oct. 25, 2023 in Charlotte, NC. (Photo by David Jensen/Getty Images)

“Not only does it fit into our strategy of the development of our younger generational fans, it fits into the NBA as an international global brand,” Bennett said. “And the new ownership group has really provided a new energy that has opened up the door for us to think differently and to be aggressive and a disruptor in some of the spaces we’re operating in.”

The Hornets aren’t done innovating, with plans to soon bring hologram technology to further improve the in-arena experience. They’re also working on more digital partnerships as they seek to grow their revenue, brand, and fan base.

In the post-Michael Jordan era, the Hornets have a new innovative energy, and Plotkin and Schnall seem ready to spread their wings.

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About The Author
Shlomo Sprung
Shlomo Sprung
Shlomo Sprung is a Senior Staff Writer at Boardroom. He has more than a decade of experience in journalism, with past work appearing in Forbes, MLB.com, Awful Announcing, and The Sporting News. He graduated from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism in 2011, and his Twitter and Spotify addictions are well under control. Just ask him.