The Atlanta Hawks' Audience Problem Is That It Isn't Black Enough
Hawks' owner Bruce Levenson’s comments weren’t so much racist as they were uncomfortably true. The problem is that instead of leaning into his black audience, he tried to run away from it.
Atlanta Hawks owner Bruce Levenson wasn't wrong when he wrote that "racist" 2012 email to his staff laying out the problems the Hawks were having selling season tickets to white people.
His hypothesis: Middle-aged white men, who are the league's primary season ticket holders, were frightened by the arena's "scary" urban atmosphere; the games are set against a hip-hop soundtrack; and the audience is overwhelmingly African-American. An excerpt from Levenson's 2012 email:
My theory is that the black crowd scared away the whites and there are simply not enough affluent black fans to build a signficant [sic] season ticket base. Please dont get me wrong. There was nothing threatening going on in the arean [sic] back then. i never felt uncomfortable, but i think southern whites simply were not comfortable being in an arena or at a bar where they were in the minority. On fan sites i would read comments about how dangerous it is around philips yet in our 9 years, i don't know of a mugging or even a pick pocket incident. This was just racist garbage. When I hear some people saying the arena is in the wrong place I think it is code for there are too many blacks at the games.
But Levenson's comments weren't racist. They were observant. But he wasn't very perceptive. And what he saw as a problem with white audiences was actually a missed opportunity to build the black audience.
Calling the audience "too black" might strike many as offensive — but Levenson highlighted a race-based reality that is borne out by my experience attending Hawks games. For many in attendance, what happens on the court is a sideshow. The main event is in the stands.
Hawks games — not unlike Atlanta Falcons games, for that matter — are part fashion show, part concert (often followed by an actual hip-hop concert), and part sporting event. Do you like Young Jeezy? If so, you'll love going to a Hawks game. Not only is Jeezy's music blasting from the loudspeakers, he's likely to be seen sitting courtside, alongside the rest of the city's critical mass of black entertainers who frequently attend games.
Back in 2012, Levenson lamented the fact that black fans don't wear Hawks gear to the games as much as white fans — and I wouldn't argue with him there either. Though the players' performance does command some attention from fans (after all, the Hawks have had winning seasons for the past several years and made it to the NBA playoffs), young black Atlantans aren't interested in blending in. They go to the games to be seen.
Racial composition at games is hardly a new conversation in sports, or even in Atlanta. Many people saw race as a factor in the Atlanta Braves' decision last year to leave Turner Field and build a new stadium in the northern suburbs that are the seat of their season ticket holder base.
White Americans have a much lower threshold for what constitutes an acceptably diverse environment than blacks do. In a recent Wall Street Journal article, University of California, San Diego, political science professor Zoltan Hajnal said that while many whites say they would be happy to live in an integrated community, their idea of integration is a community that is 10% black and 90% white. For blacks, the split is about half and half.
If we transfer that data to the sports community, Hawks games -- observed by Levenson to have about a 70% African-American audience -- would definitely be "too black" for many white fans.
And it's important to point out here that Levenson thinks the issue at hand is that the fan experience is "too black." More specifically, he is referring to the ubiquity of hip-hop culture at Hawks games. It's the same thing the NBA — which has the largest concentration of black athletes of any U.S. sports league — has tried to address via player dress codes.
But Levenson's solution to a very real problem goes awry. Despite noticing the large number of black fans in the stands and bars at Philips Arena, he wrote that the answer to this quandary is not to find and court affluent black fans who would want to buy season tickets — but rather to figure out how to make the Hawks fan experience more friendly to whites. In the email, Levenson points out that in looking around the arena, he saw black fans making up at least 70% of the crowd and 90% of bar patrons.
He goes on to say:
Then i start looking around at other arenas. It is completely different. Even DC with its affluent black community never has more than 15 pct black audience.
And here is the part that does approach racism: Levenson is clearly stating that the black fans at Hawks games are less valuable than white fans. He implies that the only reason so many black fans began attending games was because they got free tickets.
For reasons that remain unclear — perhaps fear of the email leaking, Donald Sterling-style? — Levenson voluntarily reported himself to the NBA, and announced Sunday that he will sell his interest in the team for his "racist" comments. (Sterling was forced to sell the Clippers earlier this year.) Levenson had been among the NBA owners who were loudly critical of the former Los Angeles Clippers owner after racist comments he made were secretly recorded and released. In a statement, he said in part:
I wrote an e-mail two years ago that was inappropriate and offensive. I trivialized our fans by making clichéd assumptions about their interests (i.e., hip hop vs. country, white vs. black cheerleaders, etc.) and by stereotyping their perceptions of one another (i.e., that white fans might be afraid of our black fans). By focusing on race, I also sent the unintentional and hurtful message that our white fans are more valuable than our black fans.
Because the league standard is to lure white males between 35 and 55 as season ticket holders, Levenson's default setting was to try to figure out ways to attract that demographic instead of trying to figure out how to appeal to the audience he already has. Further, he dismissed those black fans attending the game as a lost cause, as he assumed they lack the means to become season ticket holders. (A survey of the luxury cars in the Philips Arena parking lot could have likely disabused him of this notion.)
What's happening in Atlanta is a fascinating phenomenon unique to sports teams in major markets with large black populations. In contrast to the Braves and the Hawks, the Atlanta Falcons have built a marketing strategy on uber-black actor Samuel L. Jackson, who leads a gospel choir in singing the team's new theme song, "Rise Up" before the start of games, to the delight of black and white fans alike. (Hip-hop beats pulse through the speakers at the Georgia Dome too.)
Ultimately, the real loss for fans here would be for Levenson to leave, and for the issues he raised two years ago to remain. The new owner of the Hawks — whoever that may be — should learn to take advantage of the fan culture, rather than running away from it.