When is a t-shirt not just a t-shirt? Ask Dean Stoyer, the Phoenix Suns’ Chief Marketing and Communications Officer, and he’ll tell you it’s when a shirt is in service to both the fans who decide to purchase it and the athletes out on the court.
Stoyer had a 17-year career with Nike and a stint with Under Armour before taking the job in Phoenix ahead of the 2019-20 season. He came on board shortly after general manager James Jones saw the interim tag removed from his title and head coach Monty Williams was hired, the trifecta representing something of a clean slate for a franchise that needed something new.
“The power of a t-shirt goes far beyond the team shop,” Stoyer says on a video call with Dime while the desert sun floods his office.
He remembers one of the last interviews he had with Jones before being brought on board, one in which he asked what it was he and Williams wanted from Stoyer and his team It came down to energy — to give players the support of the fanbase, and to make sure they felt an undercurrent of energy, respect, and love from the people cheering them on.
“They were developing the roster, and the team that is giving our fans the pride that they have today, and my job was to make sure they have many different ways to express that pride and carry that with them whether they’re from Phoenix or New York,” Stoyer says.
That integrated approach was also the tack Stoyer and his team, including Manager of Influencer Strategy and Merchandise Marketing Gerry Mildenberger, would take when developing some of the Suns’ biggest merchandise collaborations yet.
“Going back to very traditional merchandising models of having your good, better, best options, and how you segment those percentage wise, we started at…” Stoyer pauses and laughs. “We had a lot of ‘good,’ we didn’t have much better, we definitely didn’t have any best.”
“Authenticity is the name of the game,” Mildenberger stresses. “It’s not only for our fans, the players, but goes back to the culture. There’s a huge streetwear following here in Phoenix that’s slept on.”
The first partnership to develop found its roots on the streetwear side, and within somewhat serendipitous timing. Designer Warren Lotas has made inroads around the NBA with its teams and players. The Pistons, Bucks, and Jazz have partnered with the designer for custom team shirts, and players like Suns star Devin Booker have worn pieces in pre-game tunnels.
“We reached out to Warren and his team about the same time they were trying to reach us,” Stoyer recalls. “It was to reach a different audience but really to tap into a different energy.”
Lotas’s signature motif of skeletons and psychedelic colorways paired well with the Suns “Valley” launch that made its debut in the 2020-21 season with its gradient desert hues. The collection, called “Always Heat in The Valley,” has since sold out but launched on its heels another collaboration that put the aesthetic elements of the franchise front and center with hip-hop and lifestyle brand LRG.
“They saw what we were doing,” Stoyer says. “If we’re doing things right, that word of mouth and that credibility is very important. They were looking for a partner to help lift their brand back onto center stage.”
The LRG collection features tank tops, hoodies, and t-shirts that pay homage to the classic Suns design elements that proliferated in Chales Barkley’s era.
Stoyer notes that while Phoenix does have a budding culture with its growing transplant population relocating from larger American cities, the city doesn’t share some of the more storied roots that other markets boast, like Detroit or Atlanta with their history in music. “So, we’ve had to seek out the partnerships that either have connections to fandom, or to our team,” he says.
One of the behemoth brands synonymous with fandom in basketball is designer Jeff Hamilton’s signature varsity jackets. Going all the way back to custom jackets made for Michael Jordan and Tim Duncan, and more recently with Drake enlisting Hamilton’s help in creating his OVO line of Raptors jackets, it was a dream collaboration for Stoyer, Mildenberger, and the team.
Like the other partnerships, working with Hamilton came about holistically. The designer had a previous relationship with Chris Paul and had been to a Suns playoff game last season, which sparked Hamilton’s interest in doing something with the team.
Stoyer recalls with a self-depreciating chuckle that he ran late to the first meeting he had with Hamilton, expecting the Zoom call to be with a group in the designer’s studio. Instead, there was one person waiting for him when he logged on five minutes later.
“It was shocking and delightful at the same time that we were able to have a direct conversation with Jeff, and those conversations have continued through the recent design work, and design work we’re looking at ahead of this season and into next year,” Stoyer smiles, “He’s very passionate about it and has been great to work with.”
For each partnership, the onus has been on breaking past the traditional jersey and warm-up shirt of a fan’s takeaway merch and figuring out what will make it into someone’s regular wardrobe rotation. The team looks for “energy moments” to time its drops. Some are obvious, like the postseason, and some cater to the rhythm of the team and the city. The end goal is tapping into a market of fans who see themselves in the broader lifestyle elements of basketball, rabid on gamedays but with a finger on the wider pulse of the league year-round. The tiered offerings Stoyer and his team have created allow access to that at all different price points.
“Basketball has its culture around it, it’s so important to be able to serve different demographics that come in but also realize there’s a niche audience that isn’t getting served — and that was people fully involved in the lifestyle,” Mildenberger says, adding with a grin, “I love it when you see a family walk in and they each walk out with someone unique to them.”
The biggest barometer Stoyer and Mildenberger have are also the most discerning: the players. Both joke that every collaboration has passed its own unique stress test with the team, but that the biggest signal of acceptance (and likely sigh of relief) comes when Suns players incorporate them into their pre-game tunnel fits.
“They’ve only got 82 walk-in fits, outside of playoffs, if we’re going to be one of them I’ll take it,” Mildenberger chuckles.
A pilot project called Valley Threads took that concept of collaboration with the team one step further. For its inaugural drop, Cam Payne sat with the design team to create a limited edition hoodie from start to finish with elements meant to tell his story. Mildenberger says that Payne “wears that thing all the time,” but that the biggest moment of impact was the day it was released. “We made sure to get one to all the players,” Mildenberger recalls. “They flew out on the next road trip and all of them came on the plane wearing the hoodie.”
The continuation of that pilot is something the team is working on with an eye to next season, as well as a throwback to Barkley’s iconic 1992-93 season, which celebrates its 30th anniversary next year.
“There’s nostalgia when you think of the players, but going back to the looks. We weren’t going to mess with that. We have some surprises coming,” Stoyer confirms.
“There’s so much creativity on our roster right now,” Mildenberger says, “We see that in their high opinions of what we bring into the store, in a good way. So it’s like how do we channel this creativity into another outlet that’s authentic for them, and really give our fans another avenue to really get a peak into our players’ lives.”