Depending on who's reading, Franchise is either an art glossy celebrating basketball or a basketball magazine celebrating art. Standing 13 inches tall and nearly an inch thick, Franchise looks more at home next to 032c or Wonderland than, say, Slam. This is by design.
Justin Montag, the publication's editor in chief and a lifelong fan of the sport, has been working with Apple for a dozen years — "since before the iPhone" — and currently serves as the electronic music editor of Apple Music. He was browsing newsstands while traveling internationally on business, collecting interesting-looking magazines from places like Dubai and Tokyo. Upon arriving back home in the Bay Area, Montag headed to a local newsstand and realized there was nothing on the market regarding basketball that he wanted to read. And so — not instantly, but eventually — Franchise was born. "It's really about highlighting artists who share the same love of the game as us," he said. "We want it to feel like: If you're into basketball but you aren't into art and you pick up the magazine, you might find out about some new artists, designers, or photographers," he explained of the magazine's sport/art duality. Conversely, "If you're not into basketball, but you're into art or photography, maybe you find out about a new player that you like … maybe you actually watch a game and you have a different mindset when you look at the court, because of the magazine."
From the elegant geometries of the court to enduring shoe designs like the Air Jordan, basketball has developed a rich visual lexicon over its 126 year history. "The overall element of design of the game has definitely been raised in the last few years," Montag said, noting the Miami Heat's new Miami Vice-inspired uniforms, Doubleday & Cartwright's 2015 rebranding of the Milwaukee Bucks, and art director Lauren Fisher's digital court projections at NBA games. Additionally, "the players care more what their signature [shoe] models look like, and what they wear before and after the game," he said. "You stress over outfits for days," the Golden State Warriors' Steph Curry told the New York Times of the high-stakes arrival looks, "and you wind up wearing it for 30 seconds when you walk from the parking lot to the locker room." With the professional league's investment in design and no shortage of super stylish players, a dedicated basketball/design journal couldn't have struck at a better moment.
Launched in 2016 as a biannual publication, Franchise has four issues to its name, with a fifth slated for spring. The magazine is heavy on inventive features that cross pop culture with hoops culture. Issue one includes an interview with the Clippers's Deandre Jordan conducted by Diplo; issue two offers a fashion editorial by mixed media artist Kalen Hollomon and photographer Phil Oh (aka Street Peeper, formerly Franchise's fashion director); issue three explores a day in the life of the Knicks dancers, as captured by Daniel Arnold (the same dude Vogue entrusts to shoot the scene at its annual Met Gala); issue four's highlights include an imaginative infographic on the draft lottery by the fine artist Andrew Kuo. Most contributors are friends of the well-connected Franchise team, or people they've reached out to blindly. Like anything else in this age, Instagram has been an essential tool in discovering talent.
Be it an artist spotlight or a player profile, Franchise content is designed to age well. "The thought process is, as much as possible, to make it evergreen," Montag said of the strategy. "A lot of magazines feel disposable; you don't want to keep them around long. We want people to have Franchise issue one on their coffee table for years." Physical quality helps ensure longevity as well, and is something of an obsession for the team. The magazine is printed in the U.S. (though printing overseas would be cheaper) with paper stock that changes throughout the issue (sticking to one paper quality would also be significantly cheaper). "We put a lot of effort into the paper that we use, the way that we print, the techniques we use to do the cover," he said. "It's really important for us that the quality is there." That effort hasn't gone unnoticed: The creative team of a well-known, widely-distributed indie mag known for its quality once contacted Franchise to ask what kind of paper they use. "It's very flattering, it's very cool, and it's a sign, I think, that we're on the right path."
Brands, too, have noticed Franchise's unique perspective on the sport, and have been eager to give the visual identity of their basketball business the Franchise touch. As daily dress grows increasingly casual, the sneaker and sportswear markets are too big — and too competitive — for both fashion and active brands to ignore. It is expected that the $46 billion in "athleisure" sales done in 2016 will nearly double by 2020. "A handful of really cool brands have approached us to do agency-style work," Montag said. "We've walked in to some pretty big ad agencies and some pretty big brands, and we've seen pages from our magazine on [mood board]s and it's very flattering and very cool, but at the same time that's kind of what our IP is," he said. "That's our curation, that's our design. And if other people are going to be [referencing it], why shouldn't we be the ones doing it ourselves?" he questioned, adding, "It has to be the right client and the right time. We're not looking to do an ad campaign for Muscle Milk."
Most of the ads within the magazine are designed in-house by the Franchise team. "We try to make it not feel like an ad as much as possible," Montag said. "It's been pretty successful so far: I've been with brands and they're like, 'You don't have any advertising in here,' and I'm like, 'Actually, yeah, that's an ad, that's an ad.'" The Ace Hotel and Levi's have been among early advertisers.
Expanding to include a creative studio could provide an additional revenue stream for the project, which is currently self-funded and self-distributed. Due to that obsession with quality, even with a retail price tag of $20, the magazine itself does not yield particularly high margins. Everyone on Franchise's masthead, including Montag and his two co-founders, work full-time jobs. The magazine is created after hours and on the weekend in a makeshift office set up in the front room of the house Montag and his wife — who also contributes to the magazine — share in San Jose.
Further plans for Franchise's future include investing in merch and building out a digital presence. Despite being started as a passion project, Franchise has the market positioning and the advertiser interest to support its catapult to full-fledged media brand: Video, podcasts, digital content and more. In Montag's words: "The next ESPN won't be ESPN."