Designing on Maple: The Aesthetic of NBA Floors

There was a time when watching the NBA meant half a floor full of teal-colored hornet tail or stars and rocket ships floating across a Houston floor. But thankfully the 1990s have come and gone.

“The NBA was the first to push the envelope on how courts looked,” Christopher Arena, the NBA’s vice president of identity, tells HOW Design. “We started it and college took it to another level. Now an autocorrectness is happening.”

So while the NBA autocorrects, they also design, with each of the league’s 30 teams finding new ways to pinpoint individuality and give television viewers a sense of civic pride as a backdrop to a NBA game.

NBA Design: When the Floor Is Your Stage

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“In everything we do here, the game is the most important thing,” Arena says. “If you think of (the floor) as a stage, we want the stage to represent the team and have the players the highlight of everything you see.”

But Arena quickly points out that simply because a floor acts as a stage doesn’t mean teams and designers can’t explore aesthetics, especially as designers “play around the edges with some fun things here and there.”

We’ve seen those fun things start popping up more and more in the NBA.

All floors in the NBA are maple wood. One of the harder woods available, maple maintains its integrity while being subject to much trampling. The high-gloss polyurethane coating provides the most intense grip for player safety. While the maple lasts about 10 years, the polyurethane layer is taken off and reapplied each year. But we all know that it’s above the maple wood (and below the polyurethane finish) where the fun can happen.

 

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In Boston, we’ve seen the parquet pattern for decades, while Orlando’s application is a bit more recent. Brooklyn features a herringbone pattern, new with the opening of the Barclays Center. While those designs are created by placing wood—sometimes differing grades of maple—at differing angles, we have more design-forward moves executed with stain. The new Charlotte Hornets designed a honeycomb look across their entire 94 foot by 50 foot court, the New Orleans Hornets created a pelican silhouette design within the three-point arc and the Cleveland Cavaliers celebrated LeBron James by putting the city’s skyline on the court.

 

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In Milwaukee, the Bucks have brought back history. Harkening back to 1970s artist Robert Indiana’s MECCA Arena floor design with giant, colorful, horizontal Ms that mirrored each other, the Bucks brought that back with a modern twist just last year.

“We give the teams a lot of flexibility in terms of what they can use and where,” Arena says. Typically teams opt for a logo in the center circle—some choosing a primary mark, some a partial primary, some a secondary and some a wordmark—covering anywhere from 200 to 400 square feet, averaging about 300 square feet.

From there, teams place a team name in some form on the baseline. Teams alternate between a city name, nickname or one of each. We see URLs and Twitter handles on the sidelines. The arena name shows up near mid-court between the three-point line and mid logo and the NBA logo is required at the check-in area.

The last piece of the on-court graphic markings come near the baseline, where teams have the option of a variety of unique takes. Some opt for a secondary logo, while others go a different route. Cleveland has the phrase “All for one, one for all.” Toronto chose “We the North,” and Portland spelled out its tagline “Rip City” with the names of season-ticket holders inside the letters. In Washington, the Wizards have three stars—all wizardly-looking, of course.

Arena shares that the focus is first and foremost about clear and legible line markings for players and officials. From there, the league encourages teams to show their respective colors and represent the brand the best possible way with team color and logo application.

NBA Design: Where Maple Stains Win

Still, though, there’s a lot of leeway in branding and presentation. Sometimes it goes back to the stain. In Cleveland, a tonal stain was used in the city skyline on the near-camera side of the court. It’s the same with New Orleans’s pelican design. Some NBA teams event choose to color the “paint”—the 16-foot lane in the key near each basket.

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While Milwaukee’s original 1977 MECCA floor was full of unwieldy colors of paint, it’s more sophisticated, modern form uses stain and fits right in the NBA’s latest look and feel.

“You couldn’t necessarily get away with doing the full painted court that they had back then,” says Dustin Godsey, the Bucks’ vice president of marketing. “For us, the challenge was to find a way to pay homage to that, but live within the rules that the NBA sets forth.”

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The answer: stain. The color scheme in the ‘70s was bright yellows, oranges, blues and greens, but using a Wisconsin hard maple, the floor was stained and painted right inside the BMO Harris Bradley Center this time around. To let the MECCA-inspired design have its own life, Godsey says they chose to pull a lot of color out of the markings to stay heavily on green for any paint and logo needs, with only a touch of red accent.

“It respects the design of the court,” Godsey says about going cleaner and starker.

In terms of the actual Ms, the Bucks didn’t have a hard and fast rule.

“We definitely wanted those Ms to stand out as the highlight feature of the court, but we didn’t want it to completely overtake it,” he says. “We didn’t want it to divert your eyes directly to that. We didn’t want it to be too garish, but so subtle it didn’t stand out at all. There was a balancing act there.”

While the NBA doesn’t live in the mid-1990s any longer, touches of NBA floor design does bring us back to the 1970s and beyond. But each design now has a focus on setting a stage. A fully designed stage.

Tim Newcomb covers sports design for HOW Design. Follow him on Twitter at @tdnewcomb.


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