It was quite a weekend in sports. Serena won again, the NFL proved (again) that we’re all hypocrites, and Steph Curry decided to go all Steph Curry against Mexico. He must be racist.
For me, though, the most interesting sports-related item was the news that Atlanta Hawks owner Bruce Levenson would be selling his share of the team after a racially insensitive email he sent in 2012 was revealed.
Now, there are several theories about the timing of the decision. Some think Levenson — encouraged by the outrageous figures the Clippers and the Bucks recently sold for — is just using this as a convenient opportunity to sell the team and make a profit. Some think there are other, more damaging emails that, by owning up to this one, Levenson is trying to keep quiet. And some think it happened because Jay Z is cheating on Beyonce with Elle Varner.
Either way, I’m not as interested in the timing of the email as I am with the actual content of it. Specifically, exactly how racist is it? Having read the entire letter a few times, here’s a paragraph-by-paragraph breakdown of Levenson’s racism (or lack thereof).
From: Bruce Levenson
To: Ferry, Danny
CC: Foreman, Todd (ucg.com); Peskowitz, Ed (ucg.com)
Sent: 8/25/2012 11:47:02 PM
Subject: Re: Business/Game ops
1. from day one i have been impressed with the friendliness and professionalism of the arena staff — food vendors, ushers, ticket takers, etc. in our early years when i would bring folks from dc they were blown away by the contrast between abe pollin’s arena and philips. some of this is attributable to southern hospital and manners but bob and his staff do a good job of training. To this day, I can not get the ushers to call me Bruce yet they insist on me calling them by their first names.
2. the non-premium area food is better than most arenas, though that is not saying much. i think there is room for improvement and creativity. Levy is our food vendor so we don’t have much control but they have been good partners. i have wished we had some inconic offereing like boog’s barbeque at the baseball stadium in balt.
3. our new restaurant, red, just opened so too early for me to give you my thoughts.
Nothing really racist yet, although words like “professionalism” and “southern” and “baseball” and “dc” can be dog whistles. Verdict: 5% racist.
4. Regarding game ops, i need to start with some background. for the first couple of years we owned the team, i didn’t much focus on game ops. then one day a light bulb went off. when digging into why our season ticket base is so small, i was told it is because we can’t get 35-55 white males and corporations to buy season tixs and they are the primary demo for season tickets around the league. when i pushed further, folks generally shrugged their shoulders.
then i start looking around our arena during games and notice the following:
— it’s 70 pct black
— the cheerleaders are black
— the music is hip hop
— at the bars it’s 90 pct black
— there are few fathers and sons at the games
— we are doing after game concerts to attract more fans and the concerts are either hip hop or gospel.
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.
Before we bought the hawks and for those couple years immediately after in an effort to make the arena look full (at the nba’s urging) thousands and thousands of tickets were being giving away, predominantly in the black community, adding to the overwhelming black audience.
My theory is that the black crowd scared away the whites and there are simply not enough affluent black fans to build a signficant season ticket base. Please dont get me wrong. There was nothing threatening going on in the arean 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.
The observations Levenson’s making aren’t wrong. When you make something too Black, it has a tendency to turn off many people. It happens with certain brands. It’s happening to certain cities and certain neighborhoods. And it even happened to the NBA. Even if something is safe and quality, having too much Blackness associated with it gives many the impression it’s unsafe and lacking quality. If you want something to be considered to be good, to be wholesome, to be worth talking about, it needs to be “White” or racially neutral — which is another one of saying “White.”
Also, saying “tendency to turn off many people” instead of “tendency to turn off White people” was intentional. Because White people are not the only ones who do this. That type of racialized thinking is so pervasive that it affects us too, where some of us instinctively dismiss or downgrade something if we think it’s too Black. Basically, fuck slavery. Verdict: 35% racist.
I have been open with our executive team about these concerns. I have told them I want some white cheerleaders and while i don’t care what the color of the artist is, i want the music to be music familiar to a 40 year old white guy if that’s our season tixs demo. i have also balked when every fan picked out of crowd to shoot shots in some time out contest is black. I have even bitched that the kiss cam is too black.
Gradually things have changed. My unscientific guess is that our crowd is 40 pct black now, still four to five times all other teams. And my further guess is that 40 pct still feels like 70 pet to some whites at our games. Our bars are still overwhelmingly black.
This is obviously a sensitive topic, but sadly i think it is far and way the number one reason our season ticket base is so low.
What Levenson is doing here is a form of respectability politics (RP) that has never really been proven to work. Again, his observations aren’t wrong. But his conclusion — “…I think it is far and away the number one reason our season ticket base is so low” — is classic RP, thinking an aesthetic change (less Blacks at games) will have an effect on a structural issue (season ticket base), and blaming that structural issue on an aesthetic concern.
As anyone familiar with both sports culture and Atlanta sports culture will tell you, the city of Atlanta is notoriously poor at supporting professional sports teams. Even when the Atlanta Braves were dominating the national league, they never were able to draw great crowds.
Part of this is due to the nature of the city. Atlanta, from what I understand, is filled with transplants. This is especially true when controlling for the types of people with disposable income. And, when you have a city full of transplants, you’re not going to have as many ties to the local sports teams.
More importantly, the Atlanta Hawks are entering their third consecutive decade of lukewarm basketball. They are, effectively. the Memphis Bleek of the NBA. No one checked for Bleek verses, but no one hated them either. They just existed. And that’s what the Hawks have done over the past 30 years. Just existed. They haven’t had a star on their team since Dominique Wilkins. Even then, as good as Nique was, you knew the Hawks weren’t beating the Bulls, Celtics, or Pistons in a series.
And, when you’re in Atlanta — a city soooo much shit to do — and you’re not even from Atlanta, what incentive do you have to spend good money to watch Memphis Bleek perform 41 shows a year? Verdict: 52% racist.
And many of our black fans don’t have the spendable income which explains why our f&b and merchandise sales are so low. At all white thrasher games sales were nearly triple what they are at hawks games (the extra intermission explains some of that but not all).
He has a valid concern here. I have no facts or figures to back this up, but I do think we (Black people) are less likely to buy team-related apparel than White people are. Even when I go to college and pro games, the other Black people I tend to see are dressed regularly while the White fans seem to be more likely to wear a jersey or some other type of team/school gear. I wouldn’t put this on spendable income, though. Instead, I think it’s just a cultural thing. When White fans buy jerseys, it tends to be for fandom. When Black fans do, it tends to be for fashion. Verdict: 32% racist
Regardless of what time a game starts, we have the latest arriving crowd in the league. It often looks and sounds empty when the team takes the floor.
No caveats here. This is very true. We (Black people) are late as fuck. Verdict: 2% racist
In the past two years, we have created a section of rowdy college students that has been a big plus. And we do a lot of very clever stuff during time outs to entertain the crowd. Our kiss cam is better done than any in the league.
We have all the same halftime acts that other arenas have but i question whether they make sense. people are on their cell phones during half time. i wonder if flashing on the scoreboard “$2 off on hot dogs during halftime tonight” just as the half ends would be a better use of our halftime dollars and make the fans happier.
We do all the usual giveways and the fans are usually their loudest when our spirit crew takes the floor to give away t-shirts. It pisses me off that they will yell louder for a t-shirt then for our players.
Our player intro is flat. We manufacture a lot of noise but because of the late arriving crowd and the fact that a lot of blacks dont seem to go as crazy cheering (another one of my theories) as whites, it is not great. Even when we have just returned from winnng four straight on the road, i am one of the few people in the arena standing and cheering when our team takes the floor. Bob has kicked around ideas like having the starters coming down aisles rather than off the bench during intros. Sounds cool but may highlight all the empty seats at the start of games.
Not enough of our fans wear hawks jerseys to games. i have just begun to push for ideas like discount food lines for folks wearing jerseys, special entrances, etc. I think we need a committed and perhaps incentivized fan club. We need to realize atl is simply different than every other city. Just adopting nba best practices is not enough. we have to create our own.
I am rambling and could probably go on forever. If you have any specific areas you would like my thoughts on, let me know.
ps — I have cc’d todd and ed so they can chime in with additional or different thoughts.
Sent from my iPad
Aside from his theory on the difference between Blacks and Whites cheering — which I’ll address in a sec — nothing else Levenson said is racially tinged. What I read here is a businessman concerned with his product’s profitability; a man who might not be a racist, but lazily drew racist conclusions to an issue that goes much deeper than any cosmetic racial concerns. Basically, it’s the Black people’s fault — not the city’s dynamic or his 40 degree day basketball team (that he helped construct, mind you) — that he’s not making as much money as he could.
Lastly, I don’t think he’s wrong about the cheering differences between Black and White fans. It’s something I’ve noticed as well. When you think “fanatic”, regardless of the sport, you think of a White fan donned in his team’s gear, screaming for his team’s players while booing and cussing at the opponents. My theory about why this is, though, probably differs a bit from Levenson’s. In regards to the three major sports — football and basketball especially — if a Black person goes to a game, he’s probably going to see people who look like him — or look like they can be friends with or related to them — on the field/court. It’s not just Lebron James out there, it’s a dude that looks like my tall homie from high school. (Or, in some cases, the dude who was my tall homie in high school.) And when you have this type of personal/racial connection, you’re going to be less likely to see them as just some anonymous athlete with a number on his back who you can cheer and boo with no prejudice.
These, of course, are just my thoughts. (Which likely makes me a little racist too, but we’re not talking about me today.)