Sports Nut

Something’s Burning in Atlanta

AOL is doing to the Hawks what Sherman did to downtown.

Throughout the holiday season, residents of Greater Atlanta surged to Home Depot outlets. Their goal wasn’t home improvement but rather an effort to pump up the bank account of Arthur Blank, the Home Depot founder who bought the Falcons late in 2001. The local citizenry hopes that if it buys enough track lighting and blended paints, Blank will be able to pry the city’s other teams, the Hawks, Braves, and Thrashers, from the claws of current owners AOL Time Warner.

The difference in fortune and management style between Home Depot’s team and AOL’s teams couldn’t be more striking this winter. As the Hawks bumble, the Thrashers stumble, and the Braves fumble, the Falcons are riding the hottest player in any sport, Michael “Call me Mike” Vick, to their first playoff berth since 1998 (including a surprise victory Saturday over the Green Bay Packers). And they owe much of their success to Blank. First, he allowed coach Dan Reeves, who made the daring move to trade for Vick, to keep his job and have a crack at marshaling his runaway talent. Reeves, in turn, has done a good job at allowing Vick the freedom to make big plays with his feet while insisting he improve as a pocket passer. More important, Blank reduced a large chunk of season tickets to $10 a game and lowered single-game prices, which filled up the upper deck of the Georgia Dome even before Vick caught everyone’s fancy.

Meanwhile, Atlanta’s other teams suffer under AOL’s bean-counter approach, their fates tumbling faster than the parent company’s stock price. The Braves followed their annual postseason egg-laying with something far more shocking—a salary dump. While there has always been public grumbling since AOL took over, it was usually muted by the team’s continued excellence, at least in the regular season. Signs of a mutiny were apparent in October, though, when even the gifting of thousands of free tickets to Turner employees wasn’t enough to fill the stadium during the playoffs. Since losing Tom Glavine and Kevin Millwood, both of whom will pitch for division rivals in 2003, the outcry has grown even louder. Should the decadelong run of division titles end this season, look for fans to stay away in droves.

The NHL’s Thrashers, another AOL production, are always running uphill, operating in the only American city ever to lose a team to Canada. But while savvy marketing has made franchises viable in nontraditional hockey hotbeds like Dallas, Raleigh, and Nashville, the Thrashers operate in a void. There is little semblance of a clue both off ice and on, despite the presence of two of the best young players in the game, Dany Heatley and Ilya Kovalchuk.

No team has suffered more under the tech giant’s tyranny than the Hawks. The acquisition of Glenn Robinson and the return to health of center Theo Ratliff, combined with incumbent scorers Shareef Abdur-Rahim and Jason Terry, had the franchise giddy with possibility. So much so that the team guaranteed a playoff appearance to their season-ticket holders, or else they would refund them $125. At the moment, the Hawks have the 11th best record in the East, and even that modest goal looks remote. Unless they improve, AOL will owe season-ticket holders close to $500,000.

The hype ignored the obvious—that there weren’t enough balls to go around for the shot demands of Robinson, Abdur-Rahim, and Terry; that no one on the team, save the brittle, foul-prone Ratliff, had an inkling of ever playing defense; and that coach Lon Kruger was hopelessly overmatched. Kruger was finally dismissed in a day-after-Christmas twin killing with Thrasher coach Curt Fraser. Typical for AOL, Bloody Christmas came off not as a surgical strike but a Clouseau-esque shot in the dark. Fraser was dismissed in midmorning; Kruger in the late afternoon. Stan Kasten, president of both teams, told the media that the moves were unrelated. It’s as though AOL honchos finally got up the courage to fire one, then sat around thinking, “You know, Kruger is no good either, let’s get rid of him, too!” It’s team management via sports talk radio.

The new coach, Terry Stotts, is a nice guy, which immediately separates him from Kruger, who had the surly demeanor of a Waffle House short-order cook. Stotts’ job security will depend on how well he can multitask—with only Alex English and Steve Henson as assistants, the Hawks staff is simply undermanned. Stotts would prefer to install more zone defenses to keep his thin front line out of foul trouble, but that means hiring another hand or two, which AOL seems unlikely to finance.

Matching the on-court lassitude is AOL’s dismal effort to revive the team’s fan base. During last Wednesday’s 34-point drubbing at the hands of the Miami Heat, the Philips Arena crowd was announced at 8,414, roughly double the number that was actually there. The marketing geniuses have all but ignored the city’s huge black community, which includes celebrities like Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds, Whitney Houston, Evander Holyfield, and Chuck D. The Hawks spend far more time reaching out to the half-hearted fans in the suburban sprawl.

Long-term, the Hawks’ savior is expected to be Alex English, once he gets some more bench time under his belt. He’d be a popular choice as head coach (his throwback Nuggets jersey is a top seller at sports shops in town), and having an African-American at the helm would benefit AOL. But is he the right man for the Hawks? English was exactly the score-only type Abdur-Rahim and Robinson are now—how can he teach rugged defense when it was foreign to him during his playing days? And anyone who saw English “coaching” in the Development League series on ESPN has to worry about his abilities as a commander. Those kids, on the lowest rung of the pro hoops ladder, were already walking all over him, breaking team rules, and giving him the veteran tune-out in the huddle. One shudders at what an NBA player, complete with an outsized sense of entitlement, would do with a softie like Alex in charge. Then again, it’s hard to imagine how things in Atlanta could get any worse.