Monday, September 8, 2014

Why Did Bruce Levenson Really Sell The Atlanta Hawks?!?

As an avid NBA fan, one fringe benefit of having a job that requires frequent travel is that I get to go to NBA games in other cities. I'd conservatively say I've attended a game in 2/3 of NBA arenas. Some franchises (The Celtics, Knicks, Blazers) have a festive game night atmosphere that's downright amazing. Some others (The Bucks, Pistons, Raptors) are so dead you wonder if you accidentally stumbled into Barnes & Noble. The Atlanta Hawks fell somewhere in the middle the one time I went. Not dead, not certainly no Golden State Warriors.

Getting paying fans in the seats is an ongoing problem for virtually every pro sports league except the NFL. The NBA particularly has this issue in markets like DC, Miami (pre-Big 3), and Atlanta where people are generally more transient and bring rooting interests from their hometowns. It's not abnormal to go to a Wizards game and have 75% of the crowd cheering for the opposing team. For the people who own and market such franchises, getting fans to show up and remain engaged is a challenge, especially if the teams aren't going particularly well on the court.

Atlanta Hawks co-owner Bruce Levenson apparently had some grand ideas on how to solve this problem, and stated them in an internal memo that somehow became public yesterday. The memo had some very pointed statements about black fans vs white fans, and has some people comparing Levenson to Donald Sterling.
Atlanta Hawks controlling owner Bruce Levenson has self-reported to the NBA that he sent a racist e-mail in August 2012 and will sell his interest in the team.

Levenson reported the e-mail to the NBA in July, almost two years after it was sent but while the league was deep in litigation over the now-completed sale of the Los Angeles Clippers. The investigation was ongoing when Levenson decided to leave the team.

The e-mail, to Hawks President Danny Ferry, details Levenson's belief that the Hawks' fan base was too heavily African-American. (Scroll down for full text of the e-mail.)

"I wrote an e-mail two years ago that was inappropriate and offensive," Levenson said in a Hawks news release Sunday morning. "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."

Levenson was one of the strongest critics among owners of Donald Sterling, the Clippers owner who was recorded making racist comments and quickly banned for life from the league. Levenson is stepping down, effective immediately. Hawks CEO Steve Koonin, who joined the team in April after leading Turner Entertainment, will take over team operations.

The NBA will look for a buyer now. Former Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer set a high bar in purchasing the Clippers for $2 billion from the Sterling family, but the Hawks likely won't draw that level of interest.
I'd encourage everyone to actually read the email before commenting. It's full of a lot of misinformation and expressed an unnecessarily myopic viewpoint on why the Hawks can't draw fans. Personally, while there was plenty of "racial" commentary in the email, I didn't necessarily find it "racist", and I certainly don't understand how it compares to the Donald Sterling situation.

Many of Levenson's comments, particularly the ones about black fans not cheering as hard, as observations I've made myself over the years of being a season ticket holder. Some of what he's saying (ie: the issues with the cheerleaders and black fans hanging at the bar) are silly. Others (black fathers not bringing their sons to the games) were spot-on from my personal experience.

Eerily absent: any comments about the actual product on the floor. Reality is, black or white, nobody wants to spend good money to see a boring .500 team. Nobody but me, of course. Go Wizards!

The oddest thing is the NBA's insistence that Levenson "self reported" and internal email from 2 years ago? Uhhh, sure, okay. Whatever.

Anyways, read the email and let me know what you think.

Question: Was this really an offense worthy of selling your portion of the team, or did Levenson just take the easy way out? How do you think this actually went down? What did you think about the email? Racist or just racial?

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