LOS ANGELES – Every Saturday and Sunday during the summer, street parking is sparse at 120th Street and Compton Avenue. The gym at King Drew Magnet High School is packed with fans who drive from all corners of the city for a full day of games. What draws the basketball obsessed to this urban high school? The answer is simple: the Drew League.
The Drew League was established in 1973 with the goal of teaching life lessons to South Central L.A. youth through basketball. Today it has changed from a local youth lead to a 28-team, invitation-only league considered one of the best local summer leagues in the U.S. Much like your typical professional sports league, the Drew League has multiple sponsors such as Time Warner Cable and Body Armor Sports Drink, but by far the most recognizable, influential sponsor is Nike. Jacie Prieto from Nike told me, “we decided to partner with the world’s best summer league and the opportunity to forge an authentic connection with this community beyond basketball.”
The swoosh is everywhere in the gym. It is at a pop-up photo booth, on the backboards, on all the uniforms, and on most players’ shoes. It is a bombardment of grassroots marketing. Nike is always present at the Drew League, and it adds to the cool factor in the hot high school gym.
Nike isn’t the only thing that makes the King Drew Gym a destination for the basketball obsessed. NBA stars routinely show up to play on Drew League squads. On the day I was there, Brandon Jennings, Kyle Lowry, DeMar DeRozan, Terrance Ross and Metta World Peace all took the court. Huge names such as James Harden, Kevin Durant, and Kobe Bryant have graced the Drew floor. Some stars such as DeRozan, Nick Young and Paul George are originally from the L.A. area, but it is probably not a coincidence that many of the aforementioned players wear Nike in the NBA. And think about it, if they aren’t Nike players, it still benefits Nike if players signed with other shoe companies show up. There is still that swoosh on the uniform.
How would everyone know that a player even suited up for a Drew League team? The Drew League website is the epitome of what viral and social marketing should look like. #TheDrew is all over Twitter and Instagram with pictures and tweets of that week’s action. The Nike branded website provides scores, highlights and social media feeds keeping fans updated during and after games. The grassroots marketing on-site transfers over to the digital community and can add to Nike’s branding. As Prieto says, the goal is to build upon the brand:
The heart and soul of the LA basketball culture resides at the Drew League within this community and Nike would like to build upon it not change it. The basketball culture in LA does not only include the Staples Center, The Forum, Pauley Pavillion and Venice Beach. Some of the of the cities richest basketball history was born and cultivated in Watts, Compton, and South Central LA. Part of Nike’s goal is to help elevate the past, present and future of those unrepresented in these chapters of LA basketball and we are committed to telling this story globally.
The Drew League gives Nike everything it could want in a grassroots marketing campaign with a well-known summer league, ability to brand and market its shoes and stars at a local level, and strong digital and social presence. Nike provides the league with funding, and helps the local community through its interaction with the school, and bringing people into the area. Don Smiley of the Drew League Foundation says the impact is extremely positive:
The impact the league has on the community in a very positive one. Many do not realize that in the Drew community there are no movie theaters, bowling alleys or shopping malls. One of the Drew Foundation’s roll is to provide family weekend outtings. The Drew League is the visible face of basketball in this community. The Foundation indeed helps those in need. The Drew League Foundation provides community Christmas Dinners, Turkey distributions during Thanksgiving, hosts health fairs, gang prevention programs and college tours just to name a few.
It is a perfect example of grassroots marketing that pays dividends in multiple ways.
Michael Colangelo is Assistant Director at the USC Sports Business Institute and Senior Editor of The Fields of Green.