….the Atlanta Hawks can reverse the damage of racism and poor ownership

….the Atlanta Hawks can reverse the damage of racism and poor ownership

It has been a busy season of sports, even busier off the field and in the boardrooms of teams, leagues, owners conference calls, and sports governing bodies. In the U.S., the NFL and NBA have had a summer to forget.  But it is important that we don’t forget. It is important to note how we arrived here and how the culture of the business side translates down to the rest of the operation. One business case in particular stood out, how having the wrong ownership in the wrong city and wrong sport leads to failure: Bruce Levenson and the Atlanta Hawks.

Metro Atlanta is the 9th biggest market in the U.S.(1), yet it had the 3rd worst attendance in the NBA in 2014(2) (5th worst in 2013) despite making the playoffs the past two seasons.  So when Bruce Levenson, soon to be former owner of the Atlanta Hawks, wrote to his management team two years ago about making the game presentation more friendly for white people and less directed at the majority black crowd, it appears he was thinking, how do I attract more high income families from the suburbs to Hawks games?  Levenson self-reported that he had a regrettably racist dialogue with Hawks management to the NBA and apologized to fans announcing that he would sell the Hawks.

While there was an undercurrent of racism in Levenson’s dialogue with front office staff, there was a greater issue that Grantland.com’s Rembert Browne effectively highlighted last week (3). Levenson’s problem is in the way that he sees his fans, customers, and market. The Hawks do not need a whiter crowd in order to make more money, perform better on the court, and have a better game atmosphere. They need to be an organization that understands how to better cater to Atlanta’s sports fans.

Atlanta is the 4th largest black-majority market in the country. It is seen as a hub of African-American culture, wealth, and political power. It is also experiencing an influx of white people. So what was Levenson doing so wrong? He was making some of the most common mistakes in the sports business: creating solutions to a problem that does not exist, not knowing his market, trying to change the behavior of his fans rather than changing his organization’s behavior, and not identifying the real deficiencies in his team’s marketing and sales approach.  These are mistakes the sports teams and leagues constantly make. So the question becomes, beyond winning (which the Hawks seemed to do already), what are some ways a franchise can improve business operations and the game experience?

Here are 5 Ways the Atlanta Hawks (and other failing sports teams) can reverse the damage of racism and poor ownership (and turn their business operations around):

1. Hire marketing staff with success in generating interest and business from your market’s demographics.

There are businesses that succeed in Atlanta.  There are entertainment businesses that succeed in Atlanta.  There are sports entertainment businesses that succeed in Atlanta. You want more families to attend your game? Hire a marketer that knows that market. Hire a marketer that has a successful track record of selling to families. The talent exists.  Find them and bring them onboard.

2. Make an effort to understand your fans. Address the issues you think your fans face directly and proactively.

Want fans to spend more at the arena? Survey them and understand their appetite for your products.  Adjust your products to suit your fans.  White people don’t want to come because of they are in the minority? Is that anecdotal or backed by research? Don’t waste time addressing a speculative problem. Address real issues and invest in your fans.

3. Rather than alienate the fans that are attending, find new and creative ways to attract other demographic groups.

Why cut your nose to spite your face? Arenas don’t need to be segregated to keep each fan group happy, that is ignorant thinking. Expand the investment and efforts rather than refocusing. The economic pie is not severely limited in the Metro Atlanta market. If the fans are not showing up despite a competitive team then there are other organizational issues to address. Use research to find out ways to reach other demographics and then test new approaches until something works. It is not a quick fix, it is an investment.

4. Change of atmosphere requires a change in behavior….from you.

You is ownership. You is senior management. A change in you filters down across the organization and spills over in the form of excited employees who are motivated to work toward a constructive team mission.  A proactive, inclusive atmosphere inspires creativity and a stronger work ethic. The desired change in atmosphere in an arena comes from an optimism that begins with the Ticket Sales team calling an existing season ticket holder and addressing there concerns and offering them a better experience. That optimism builds when the ticket holder is greeted by upbeat staff throughout the facility. And hopefully, that optimism is rewarded by a competitive team that is filled with players who want to play for the club.

5. Seek out lessons from organizations that thrive without success on the court.

There are organizations whose fans are engaged with a team despite its lack of success on the court. What are they doing right? How are they going above and beyond? Why are the Jazz and Celtics still drawing good crowds when their teams no longer compete? These are not closely held trade secrets. Make the effort. Make the changes. That is what inspires.


1 “Demographic Info for Atlanta”
2 “NBA Attendance Figures”
“Rembert Browne, Grantland.com – Minority Report: The Real Problem of the Atlanta Hawks Implosion”

Author Description

JB Hacking

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