Hawks Majority Owner to Sell Team After Racist Email Revealed

Levenson, above on right, in happier times

Bruce Levenson is the majority owner of the Atlanta Hawks, and lo about 2012 he was quite frustrated about the Hawks’ inability to attract suburban white fans to the games. He apparently sent an email explaining why he thought this was and it included the pithy observations that the Hawks white fans might be afraid of their black fans, and that having more white cheerleaders and more country music might bring the paler side of the fan base to the arena. This, by the way, is what happens when you extrapolate from the AJC comments section to the rest of society.

Here are his thoughts below, and let me just say kudos to Levenson’s actions of 2014: self-reporting and taking responsibility. Obviously his actions of 2012 should be condemned.

“Over the past several years, I’ve spent a lot of time grappling with low attendance at our games and the need for the Hawks to attract more season ticket holders and corporate sponsors. Over that time, I’ve talked with team executives about the need for the Hawks to build a more diverse fan base that includes more suburban whites, and I shared my thoughts on why our efforts to bridge Atlanta’s racial sports divide seemed to be failing.

In trying to address those issues, 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.

If you’re angry about what I wrote, you should be. I’m angry at myself, too. It was inflammatory nonsense. We all may have subtle biases and preconceptions when it comes to race, but my role as a leader is to challenge them, not to validate or accommodate those who might hold them.

I have said repeatedly that the NBA should have zero tolerance for racism, and I strongly believe that to be true. That is why I voluntarily reported my inappropriate e-mail to the NBA.

After much long and difficult contemplation, I have decided that it is in the best interests of the team, the Atlanta community, and the NBA to sell my controlling interest in the Hawks franchise.

The statement above has now been removed from the Hawks’ website, and replaced by one from CEO Steve Koonin.

The AJC now has the entire email, I’ve copied it below after the jump, you can decide at exactly what point it reaches launch trajectory:

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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
Best,
Bruce
ps — I have cc’d todd and ed so they can chime in with additional or different thoughts.

36 comments

  1. Jawgadude says:

    Could his e-mail be considered inflammatory? Sure. Is what he said correct? Yes. It pains me we have reached a point that everyone is now bound by the unwritten law of political correctness – doesn’t matter if what you say is true, someone or some group will be offended, and if that someone or group is minority, then you will be nailed to the PC cross. This was not a public statement by Levenson, it was a private e-mail. Just another example of what prodded me to stop watching the NBA 20 years ago.

    • JJ123 says:

      As an African American, I can respect Mr. Levenson’s concern about his team and the statistical information that he presented. With that said, his lack of appreciation for African Americans buying tickets to the Hawks games, is, at best, unappreciative. He stated that we (African Americans) are the reasons why white males will not buy tickets and attend Hawks games. Well, I call BS on that. Why doesn’t the Falcons have the same problem? We attend Falcons games. And if he doesn’t like the hip hop music, then change it. Who’s twisting his arm to play hip hop? Maybe the real reason the arena is empty is because he doesn’t want to spend the money to recruit quality players to bring this city a championship. And, maybe the reason he self-reported is because he wants OUT…he no longer wants ownership of the team. Well, Mr. Levenson, sell the team and move on. No one will miss you!!

      And to the person that stated that “white people are illogically afraid of all black people”, give me a break!!

    • Will Durant says:

      So to avoid nasty lawsuits and get rid of the controversy in a hurry they spanked Sterling with more than 3 times Forbes’ valuation of the franchise. I’m doubtful that lightening will strike twice but Levenson has definitely burned his bridges in the effort.

  2. xdog says:

    Owning a sports franchise means being rich enough to buy in and smart enough to hire knowledgeable people to run the team. Levenson met both criteria. I hope the next owner doesn’t run off Danny Ferry.

  3. MattMD says:

    To speak of sports, is getting offended the new American pastime?

    I’m more offended by his syntax than anything contained in that ham-fisted e-mail. What did he say that was “racist”. I swear calling someone “racist” reminds me of branding someone a “witch” in the 17th century.

    If I’m missing something, anybody can feel free to let me know.

  4. rightofcenter says:

    Well, the black leadership are horrified by the email and see it as racist and horrible. I would use a different word: stupid. A white person should not write or say any statement that can in any way be construed as negative towards blacks, even if true, because the eternally offended will not tolerate it.

    • JJ123 says:

      I think black people were more offended by his accusation that we are the reason white people don’t support the Hawks or his lack of appreciation for us buying tickets and supporting the team. Sometimes you have to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes to understand!!

  5. MattMD says:

    Cue the idiots who will state: “racism is alive and well”. Like that is some unique, ground-breaking thought rather than the worn-out cliche that it happens to be.

  6. bsjy says:

    Well, after reading that email, I am sure the southern whites will come rushing to buy Hawks tickets. Though not an approved victim group, they have reason to be offended by that email, too.

    • rightofcenter says:

      This. He doesn’t really say much that is negative about blacks (other than the disposable income), the point of the email is that southern whites are racist and if we want to fill our arena we have to take that into account.

    • jbgotcha says:

      No they don’t. They wouldn’t come to the games anyway. For white folks, Georgia is a football state. SEC teams put an emphasis on their football programs and have historically been better than their basketball programs. I don’t know many white folks outside of the City of Atlanta that are huge NBA fans. It’s just not part of the culture down here. Same with hockey.

  7. Lea Thrace says:

    Can I just make mention that there wasn’t any outrage from the minority community because there wasn’t ANY TIME to be outraged! The news about the email came out at the same time that the news about his sale of shares. There was no protest. No public outcry. Nothing.

    My conspiracy theorist mind says that the timing of all of this leads me to believe he self reported and sold because there may be more unsavory behavior/correspondence out there to be found out and he is heading it off at the pass? Otherwise it makes no sense. Particularly since what he said was very offensive but not nearly close to what Sterling said AND did.

    • Lea Thrace says:

      And there’s the something more that I posited about above.

      I have no desire to know what was said about Luol Deng. I’m really tired of being disgusted by fellow humans beings this week. And it’s only Monday.

  8. tribeca says:

    The logic in this email seems pretty similar to the Braves’ motivations for moving to Cobb County. I guess the lesson is, don’t leave a paper trail re: your plans to attract more white people. Instead, just announce you’re moving to the suburbs because you want to be “near season ticket holders.”

  9. Baker says:

    The Hawks stink. And they have stunk since the mid-90s. And they weren’t very good then. Start winning and then if you’re still not selling seats, take another look. But the degree to which a sucky, forever non-exciting team the Hawks are cannot be underestimated. This guy is a moron.

    All that said: I think Jay Bookman was pretty good on this…http://www.ajc.com/weblogs/jay-bookman/2014/sep/08/levensons-hawks-email-tells-some-awkward-truth/

    “However, the more important bottom line exposed by Levenson’s email is that despite wishful thinking by some, we are not a “post-racial” society and are not likely to become one anytime soon. Stereotypes persist, they remain powerful, and their influence can be felt in ways as subtle as the type of music played at an NBA game and as disturbing as the rates at which young black males are stopped by police.”

    It’s stupid for those on the right to say “just get over it” but it’s also stupid for liberals to just yell “you’re racist” all the time. One side needs to confront how much of their thinking is based in truth but so does the other one.

  10. Three Jack says:

    Not much difference between what Levenson wrote and the Nunn campaign plan as far as stereotyping certain demographic groups. Should she now be forced to withdraw from the senate race if we use the same criteria applied to Levenson?

  11. Trey A. says:

    +1 to tribeca

    Levenson’s looking to cash out–what better way to force Adam Silver’s hand and speed along the process than to step aside amid racist controversy? Let’s not forget that Levenson tried to sell the team to Alex Meruelo a couple years ago before the league office blocked the sale. And he already sold our Hockey team to Canada.

    That said, the email is filled with insulting and sometimes bigoted “observations” about Hawks fans, Atlanta sports fans and black Hawks fans in particular.

    You don’t need to be a business-savvy billionaire to observe that the ACTUAL reason Hawks merch doesn’t sell all that well in the arena is because half of the fans are there to see the opposing team.

    Also, as someone who goes to a LOT of Hawks games (you may remember, I posted on this site as “Zaza Pachulia” for years), I’d guess the biggest marketing challenge the Hawks have faced over the past decade is dysfunctional ownership, dysfunctional management and too many years of lackluster performance. (Braves have been doing their best Hawks impression for a few years now and take a look at their attendance decline. It’s staggering.)

    And I have no idea what games Bruce has been going to, because I have never seen a “70% black” Hawks crowd, a “too black kiss cam,” or “too many black cheerleaders.” Also, there are fathers and sons (and moms and daughters) all over Philips every time I go. Levenson is clearly a moron. And lets not forget that he attends about 3 games each year, lives in D.C. and socializes with a peer group of fellow elite northern rich folks with similar views about us ATLiens.

    The worst thing about this, as a Hawks fan: This email is terrible PR for a team and organization that has been moving in the right direction. The management is now as strong as its ever been. The marketing and in-game experience reflect the progress they’ve made since Danny Ferry, Coach Bud and now Steve Koonin have come aboard. The team is exciting to watch, poised to improve in a very competitive conference and beginning to win back fans. I challenge all PPers to take their families to a Braves game, a Falcons game and a Hawks game before the start of 2015. Then come back and evaluate which one is the best overall family experience… I feel like the Hawks were really in a unique position to win back a lot of fans who’ve abandoned them over the years and now this crap happens. Well, at least Bruce Levenson is going to be gone.

  12. Trey A. says:

    Also, Stefan, your treatment of the story is perfect. Especially this little golden nugget of truth:

    “This, by the way, is what happens when you extrapolate from the AJC comments section to the rest of society.”

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