Steve Koonin, the CEO of the Atlanta Hawks, finds it impossible to make an uninterrupted walk to his courtside seat at Philips Arena and settle in peacefully to watch a game. He may be the friendliest CEO in the NBA, a guy that can market his team to rappers and rabbis, but his cordiality is only part of Koonin’s allure and why he is stopped in his tracks to shake so many glad hands. He is running a franchise that has laundered itself fresh in less than a year, a franchise that went from loathsome to respected on the floor, and off it. Everybody wants a piece of Stevie K, which is his nom de guerre when the lights blaze on the hardwood floor and he is marketing to the crowd in the pre-game glitz.
You can only shake your head in disbelief over these Hawks and their startling rebound from calamity.
Last summer, when it came to being despised, they were worse than the Clippers. This is the hometown of Martin Luther King Jr, and for Hawks majority owner Bruce Levenson to declare black NBA fans were scaring away white NBA fans was abominable compared to Donald Sterling’s girlfriend rant.
Levenson’s e-mail missive about black fans being bad for white business, which was uncovered last July, was only part of the plague around the Hawks. There was also the dart from General Manager Danny Ferry. While reading from a scouting report, Ferry said free agent Luol Deng had “a little African in him.” Alarms sounded because Ferry didn’t choke on those words in mid-sentence.
That was enough to castigate the franchise, but then the Hawks added a smaller blunder in the eyes of the NBA mavens. They made the decision that they did not need a superstar to win in the NBA. They had really good players—Paul Millsap, Al Horford, Jeff Teague and Kyle Korver—but not a money man. Preposterous.
The crush of the negative vibe should have taken more than a year to subside, but it didn’t. On a recent Friday at 6:30 p.m., an hour before the Hawks were to take on the Cleveland Cavaliers in suddenly throbbing Philips Arena, Koonin had to push away from NBA execs, well-wishers, business leaders and joyous fans to get to an appointment. He was 10 minutes late for his appointment, a disgrace for a southern gentleman.
“It’s been one of those days,” he said. “I couldn’t get away. Sorry.”
It’s understandable, Stevie K, it really is. Hosannas for the Hawks have replaced barbs for the Hawks. Koonin got an e-mail from a CEO of local company, which does not have an advertising stake in the Hawks, telling him that he has proclaimed “Hawks Day at the office” or some such thing. Koonin’s CEO pal encouraged employees to wear their Hawks gear to work.
“That’s a watershed moment,” Koonin said, “when a major company with no stake in your business does something like that.”
Koonin has e-mails jamming his inbox from New York execs looking for tickets to a big game. In January, when the Hawks went the entire month without the scratch of a loss, he handled transactions for season tickets when friends called his direct line.
The rappers then rabbis bit is no lie. He does business with the likes of T.I. and hosted a Hawks Hanukah night.
Everybody loves a winner so, sure, everybody wants to wrap their arms around his team (the Hawks were cruising in the Eastern Conference with a 10-game lead in early March). But success on the floor is only part of the reason for the turnaround.
The Hawks are remodeling to fit the urban core of Atlanta, which is younger, more diverse, less bound by the conventions of race. Younger fans are flocking through the turnstiles at Philips Arena. Black and white.
“The target audience of youth, 18 to 34, is up 300 percent,” Koonin said. “The smallest audience is guys 50-plus years old, which is only up 94 percent. We have gotten much younger, more relevant to a young audience and that is key to building a brand, for advertising, and most important sustaining and building a fan base.”
The Braves and Falcons are moving into a new stadiums (2017), but the Hawks are getting something more vital to a franchise. New blood.
“We reflect what’s happening in Atlanta culturally,” Koonin said. “We’re diverse, we’re young, we’re social media driven.”
The music inside the arena reflects the diversity of the crowd with pulsating rap to the smoky soul of Adele.
The Hawks are in the ninth largest NBA market, but their attendance has been mostly in the bottom third while their TV audience has been in the top 5. They have struggled in recent years to close the gap, but it is closing. Quickly.
According to Stevie K, during All-Star weekend, Atlanta was No. 2 night in TV ratings and No. 4 league-wide. Attendance at games was 78 percent of arena capacity last season, but has soared to 94 percent this season. The Hawks’ television ratings are up 125 percent.
“That tells me we are a great NBA town,” Koonin said. “We’re not a great Hawks town. We are becoming a great Hawks town. We’re activating the latent demand.”
The issue of Levenson and Ferry is still to be dealt with. Levenson and the other Hawks owners have agreed to sell the team and the deal could be done by mid-summer. Ferry, the architect of this sudden NBA Championship contender, was put on indefinite suspension for his remarks and his fate will likely be decided by the new owners.
Around the concourse before a March game with Cleveland, the fans seemed ready to give Ferry another chance. A random sampling of 25 fans, found 20 giving Ferry a thumbs up, five a thumbs down.
The Hawks are taking nothing for granted as far as diversity. In December, they hired Nzinga Shaw to be the NBA’s first diversity and inclusion executive. It is not window dressing. She has set up a local council of 21 people of diverse backgrounds to help the franchise sort through issues of race and inclusion.
“I think I was very cognizant of the fact that people might think my job was to mask an issue,” Shaw said. “I would never take a position for show. I am very young. I have a lot of enthusiasm around the issue of diversity and inclusion. I knew that if I took this role I was going to make it real no matter what.”
Shaw’s mandate is to make sure “inclusion” also pertains to tickets. There are economic issues in the center of Atlanta and NBA fans can be priced out by tickets and concessions. The Hawks, who are selling out routinely, have allotted 1,500 tickets for $15 and not all of those seats are halfway to the moon on the top row of the arena.
Business is good. Digital connects—Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Hawks.com—are up 300 to 400 percent. Retail is up 150 percent, Koonin said. There does not seem to be much leftover stench from last summer.
“There are a few people who dwell on the past and for those folks that is their mindset,” Koonin said. “As an organization we have moved on with the things that we feel need to connect us to the citizen. Things are going extraordinarily well.”
Ray Glier is a SLAM contributor. Follow him on Twitter @RayGlier.
image via Getty