Is The Atlanta Hawks Owner Racist Or Just A Bit Out Of Touch?

Senior Editor
09.08.14 15 Comments

I’ve seen a lot of hot takes concerning Bruce Levenson, the Atlanta Hawks owner who admitted to sending an insensitive email in 2012. Levenson says he will sell his stake in the team as a result.

Before we go any further, it’s important you read what Levenson actually said.

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).

Out of touch? Sure. A bit ignorant? Absolutely. Racist? Hold on there. We seem to throw around that term far too often, letting it spread like a fart in the wind. Oftentimes it’s lazy, following the lines of Twitter-type mob mentality.

“Racist Bruce Levenson is racist you guys”


Rarely do we examine the words, the mentality behind the issue. Thankfully, NBA Hall of Famer Kareem Abdul-Jabbar did that for us in a beautifully written piece for TIME.

Levenson is a businessman asking reasonable questions about how to put customers in seats. In the email, addressed to Hawks President Danny Ferry, Levenson wonders whether (according to his observations) the emphasis on hip-hop and gospel music, the fact that the cheerleaders are black, the bars are filled with 90 percent blacks, kiss-cams focus on black fans, and timeout contestants are always black has an effect on keeping away white fans.

Business people should have the right to wonder how to appeal to diverse groups in order to increase business. They should even be able to make minor insensitive gaffs if there is no obvious animosity or racist intent. This is a business email that is pretty harmless in terms of insulting anyone — and pretty fascinating in terms of seeing how the business of running a team really works.

I’ve been writing on the internet for quite some time. As a minority I’ve had to touch on sensitive subjects of race before. What I find most appalling are people who think race exists in a vacuum, the proverbial black and white argument. They aren’t willing to talk about the socioeconomic impact of things like ticket sales at arenas. Above all, Levenson’s main point is capitalism, “how do I make more money?” If that means catering to a certain demographic, if that means adjusting the music so the majority of fans enjoy it, so be it. That’s what a good businessman does. That’s not to say Levenson’s without some fault here. Some of his words kinda rubbed me the wrong way. But let thee who hasn’t said something controversial cast the first stone. Go ahead.

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