I awoke Sunday morning and saw reports that the Atlanta Hawks owner, Bruce Levenson, will sell his stake in the franchise. Once I saw the circumstances, I understood the reasoning.
An ongoing probe by the NBA yielded an email with racial intonations he sent to his partners and executives. As one of the owners who went on record against Donald Sterling this spring, he decided it was best to bow out and not subject his loved ones to scorn.
Certainly, Levenson doesn’t belong in the same category as Sterling. Analysis of the situation and history suggests the two have very little in common besides ownership of NBA franchises. However, the analysis of the email and surrounding facts suggest the league might have an image problem.
How these allegations are handled could tell us a lot about how much the Association cares about its owners not making money on local revenue.
Donald Sterling spent decades as the most hated owner in the NBA, running the Clippers on a shoestring budget and producing an inferior product. While the Lakers won titles and thrilled fans with superstars, the other team in LA just stunk.
Sterling had a terrible attitude and awful reputation, which included multiple racial discrimination lawsuits surrounding his real-estate dealings. The controversial comments at his advanced age gave the league just cause to throw him out just as his franchise sustains prominent success.
Bruce Levenson joined the Atlanta Spirit holdings company, which owns the Hawks and other properties in the area, from Washington, DC. He started United Communications Group, a business-to-business service company with millions of clients, and unlike former owner and media magnate Ted Turner, Levenson and some of his partners aren’t local guys.
People wouldn’t recognize him walking around downtown Atlanta; whereas, Sterling was a well-known community member in LA. While Sterling was booted with a resounding, “good riddance,” Levenson has drawn sympathy from African-Americans, from Internet commenters to Sterling critic Kareem Abdul Jabar, a basketball great and executive.
The initial inquiry started by the league stemmed from a scouting report from Hawks GM Danny Ferry. Ferry, who is white, says about then-free agent forward Luol Deng:
He’s got some African in him. And I don’t mean that in a bad way.
Even the annotation of his Sudanese ethnicity suggests the colonial mindset that Africans were lazy and stupid, belittling the former Duke player’s work rate.
The exhaustive email that suggested the team wasn’t drawing enough Caucasian fans from the suburbs to the Phillips Arena was also unearthed in the subsequent investigation.
How Pro Sports Owners Actually Make Money
Since taking over the team in 2005, Levenson has constantly battled with attendance numbers at the Philips Arena. The numbers rose after Spirit took over and the Hawks acquired Joe Johnson, increasing over 2,000 per game by 2010.
Even so, the team was never in the top half of league attendance, and still saw empty seats every night. The trend reversed after 2010, and this year’s average was under 14,500, the third worst in the league.
Levenson wrote the email in 2012 after the attendance average fell over 1,250 in two seasons. Before the grand stereotyping begins, he claims that the team is handing out free tickets, at the league’s behest, “to make the arena look more full” on television.
The NBA has done a tremendous job increasing media values over the past few decades, keeping ties with Turner’s networks like TNT while moving to juggernaut ESPN/ABC from NBC during the 90s. League executives like to hang their hat on how much they make the owners and players on these new deals.
While the billions look good, as does the NBA’s spearheading of basketball global expansion, it doesn’t mean as much on the bottom line for individual franchises. Even with lucrative local deals, like the Hawks’ with Fox Sports South, many teams operate in the red from player contracts and regular expenses.
The difference between winning and losing in sports is having fans at the games. Empty seats mean people aren’t buying tickets, food and beverages, merchandise and supporting the various revenue streams that fill the local reservoirs.
Levenson’s Assumptions Were Misguided
The email begins to tailspin when the Hawks owner notes that most of the free tickets went to urban-based community groups. This was accentuating the “predominantly” African-American audience who attended games.
The dance team/cheerleaders were mostly black, and hip-hop music plays during the games. After-game events, something teams at all levels do — some more than others — often included concerts featuring gospel, hip-hop artists popular in the community.
I’m not sure how much time this guy spends in Atlanta, but that’s sort of the city’s cache. Since hosting the 1996 Olympics, the city has boomed in population and cultural prominence. Southern rap and hip-hop acts like Outkast, Usher and Lil Jon are based in Hotlanta.
The city became a destination for educated African-Americans, as noted in Dave Chapelle’s famous “Wrap It Up” sketch. Atlanta is also home to the highest concentration of African-American millionaires in the United States, according to the Washington Post.
Unlike Sterling, Levenson acknowledges the good his African-American season ticket holders do, but suggested they could use more to attract businesses in the area. However, his concern that the existing audience is keeping them away insults two groups at once.
These 35 to 55 white males aren’t the stereotypical rednecks who live on NASCAR and rush home to drink Bud and watch “Dukes of Hazzard.” It’s a very sophisticated market working in various media, technology and business service fields, producing over $270 billion annually.
Much of his battle has more to do with overarching concerns about reaching fan bases for many teams. In Atlanta, over 90 percent of the 5 million-plus people in the market live outside the city. Atlanta is notorious for its bad traffic every day, so driving on a Monday in the winter to see the Bobcats may not be too appealing.
Atlanta has been undergoing a sports metamorphosis that will continue over the next few years. The Thrashers, also owned by the Spirit group, left town due to poor attendance. The Falcons are replacing the Georgia Dome, built just 20 years ago, and the Braves have to leave Turner Field for a suburban location to be closer to their existing season ticket holders and try to draw more from the metro area.
The Value Of Tickets Goes Beyond The Price
The suggestion to give away unsold tickets, whether directed by the league or not, is possibly the least productive thing you can do if you want to build a season ticket base.
Fans need reasons to spend thousands and commit to all those dates. Seeing that the team would rather give those seats away to random people than eat the inventory and show they need your business is a turn-off. If the arena looks full on TV, what would make you think they even want you to invest?
That concept has much more to do with the Hawks’ business problems than assumed bigotry. Levenson cites the difference between targeting college students and the energy they bring, versus people who might not be as invested. If the fans there are flat, it can suck and won’t draw new fans in.
History is working against the Hawks, as well. Atlanta has become a destination city, so fewer folks in the area grew up watching Dominique Wilkins and Spud Webb rock the Omni. The Hawks haven’t won an NBA title in franchise history, which doesn’t help the case.
It would be foolish to overlook that the NBA doesn’t turn off some fans with their rosters and image. Some prospective buyers want to see a league more like the old days, with prominent white stars like Larry Bird, John Stockton and others who played in the 80s and earlier.
The league has gone to impressive lengths to curtail the “thug image” by mandating players dress business casual on benches and at league business. However, in Atlanta and other markets, there are still fans who want to see players that they can relate to.
Not much the NBA can do about that besides creating a racial quota system, and the only way that would work is if every white point guard could play like former Grizzlies and Kings flash master Jason Williams.
Philadelphia Flyers legendary coach Fred Shero made a brilliant metaphor when he compared chickens and pigs in a bacon and egg breakfast: “The chicken contributes, but the pig is committed.”
Right now, the biggest question for franchises is finding those pigs to be season ticket holders. Those who can, will be able to sign the big name players needed to win games and compete for championships.
Why Levenson Is Leaving On His Own
Unlike Sterling, Levenson has volunteered to sell his stake in the franchise. Fans have noted the Spirit group has struggled with cohesion since forming a decade ago.
The group of seven was once nine, as one partner left the group, while another died. Some fans claim the lack of consistency, on and off the court, has cost the team season ticket holders.
The team has lost money over the years, just like the Thrashers did before they moved. When the NBA’s investigation concluded, he decided to fall on the sword. He will most likely cash out well and retire into private life.
The league might flush out other owners and executives who harbor thoughts incongruent with their policies.
However, we aren’t guaranteed that this will reverse the image problems and downward attendance trends that spawn emails with stupid stereotypes that can ruin careers.
Top Photo Courtesy: Twitter