Sports Nut

We Love Our (White) Fans

Hawks owner Bruce Levenson’s email reveals how Atlanta’s sports franchises think about race.

Atlanta Hawks fans
Atlanta Hawks fans cheer at a playoff game in 2010.

Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images

In the 1960s, Atlanta earned the nickname “The City Too Busy to Hate” due to its (relative) progressivism on racial issues compared with other Southern cities. Now, 50 years later, it fancies itself the capital of the “New South,” a place that’s bursting with opportunity for people of all races. If only the story of race in Atlanta were that comforting and simple. It’s no accident that strained race relations have now come to define the Atlanta sports scene. Ask Atlantans for the defining characteristic of the city’s pro franchises, and they’ll probably tell you that it’s repeated failure when the games count the most. But off the field, the one thing all these teams have in common is their inability, and often unwillingness, to grapple with race in a humane, meaningful way.

Over the weekend, we got some insight into how Atlanta Hawks majority owner Bruce Levenson thinks about the city’s racial dynamics. In an email sent to other Hawks executives in 2012, Levenson noted that when he looked around Philips Arena, he saw that the crowd is “70 percent black,” “the cheerleaders are black,” and the “music is hip hop.” He also added, as if to assure his fellow execs that he’d thought about this issue comprehensively, “I have even bitched that the kiss cam is too black.” In the final analysis, Levenson speculated that the team’s ticket sales were lagging not because the Hawks haven’t had a star player since Dominique Wilkins, but due to the fact that “the black crowd scared away the whites and there are simply not enough affluent black fans to build a significant season ticket base.”

Levenson announced on Sunday that he was selling his interest in the team, apologizing for sending “the unintentional and hurtful message that our white fans are more valuable than our black fans.” But it’s not as if Levenson is a unique figure in Atlanta sports. This message that the Hawks owner apologized for delivering—that white fans are more valuable than black ones—is the exact one the Atlanta Braves have been broadcasting for the last several years.

Major League Baseball’s Braves, like the Hawks, play in a stadium downtown. That won’t be the case for that much longer. In 2017, the team is moving to a new stadium in suburban, mostly white Cobb County. The deal for that facility was struck largely in secret. “If it had gotten out, more people would have started taking the position of, ‘We don’t want that to happen,’ ” Braves President John Schuerholz explained.

Why wouldn’t some people want this stadium deal to happen? First, it’s being paid for in part by $400 million in public funding from Cobb County—an outlay that, to his credit, Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed did not want to match. Second, the new ballpark will be inaccessible by rail, meaning it will be isolated from a huge swath of the city’s residents. It’s no accident that fans who live in Atlanta proper will have to get to the Cobb County stadium via choked highways, the same ones that enabled the city’s white flight back in the 1960s and 1970s. With regard to transportation, Cobb County GOP chairman Joe Dendy said last year that it “is absolutely necessary the solution is all about moving cars in and around Cobb and surrounding counties from our north and east where most Braves fans travel from, and not moving people into Cobb by rail from Atlanta.”

Braves executives have said the club’s current park, Turner Field (which was built for the 1996 Olympics), is broken down and outdated. Its location in an urban neighborhood—one that is often described as dangerous—also “doesn’t match up with where the majority of our fans come from,” according to the team’s vice president of business operations. While the franchise has supported that assertion with a heat map of season ticket holders, one that shows that Atlanta’s northern suburbs are teeming with Braves fans, it’s also not hard to spot the racial coding here. Unlike the Hawks, the Braves don’t seem troubled by the presence of black fans—they just don’t seem to care all that much about them. Rather, the team wants to focus on catering to its white, suburban clientele and isn’t concerned about alienating its smaller black fan base.

By contrast, Hawks owner Bruce Levenson seemed to acknowledge that his team—with its larger core of black fans—should try to maximize its cross-racial appeal. In his email, he blames whites for their supposed discomfort with sitting alongside black people in an arena that’s situated in a black neighborhood. “On fan sites I would read comments about how dangerous it is around Philips [Arena],” Levenson wrote, “yet in our nine 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.”

Judging by what he wrote in 2012, Levenson wouldn’t want to bring the Hawks to the suburbs. Instead of moving away from black fans, he wanted to lure in white ones. His suggested strategy for accomplishing this, as Deadspin’s Albert Burneko puts it, is to make “the in-arena experience friendlier to racists” by doing things like hiring more white cheerleaders, showing fewer black customers on the kiss cam, and playing music that’s “familiar to a 40-year-old white guy.”

Black culture has thrived in Atlanta for a very long time. Back in the 1930s and 40s, the Sweet Auburn Business District was rocking and the Daily World reigned as an influential, authoritative black newspaper. Today, Atlanta has more black residents than any metro area aside from New York, with countless celebrities (including a huge number of athletes) and affluent Northerners moving to town in the last decade.

This is a fantastic business opportunity that Levenson failed to understand or embrace. In his 2012 email, Levenson wrote that the Hawks’ majority black crowd was out of character for the NBA: “Even [Washington] D.C. with its affluent black community never has more than 15 percent black audience.” (Levenson’s ownership group is based in the Washington area, though his team bio says he has a home in Atlanta in addition to his residence in Potomac, Maryland.) Rather than see this as a great opportunity to market to a well-to-do black audience, Levenson claimed in his email that “many of our black fans don’t have the spendable income” to buy merchandise. When he saw an arena full of black fans, he presumed that this was a problem that needed to be fixed—that his only route to success was to cater to the suburban “white guy.” That assumption ends up looking very bad no matter whether it’s expressed in stark emails (Hawks) or in clandestine back-room deals (Braves).

The unifying principle here isn’t just black and white—it’s green. The Braves consulted a heat map of their season ticket holders and chased their wallets, tradition, and convenience be damned. Levenson viewed rows of empty seats as a symptom of racial animus and a sign of his inability to sell a “black” product to white fans. And when you think about the money first, the fact that he’s now unloading his share of the team shouldn’t be viewed as much of a punishment. Levenson tried to sell the team back in 2011, but that deal—to a Californian named Alex Meruelo who would have become the league’s first Latino owner—was scuttled by the league office at the last minute. It wouldn’t surprise me if Levenson sees this embarrassing email as his ticket out, and that he doesn’t mind being lumped in with the disgraced Donald Sterling—who got $2 billion for the Clippers after the NBA forced him to sell—so long as his golden parachute flies in the same section of the sky.

While the conversation around the Hawks and Braves has been as much about demographics and urban planning as wins and losses, the NFL’s Falcons offer another window into the city’s racial rift. The Falcons, too, are moving to a new stadium, one that’s still in downtown Atlanta. (It was his prior commitment to a Falcons stadium deal—one that will require a $200 million municipal investment—that pushed Mayor Reed to reject any public outlay for a new Braves ballpark.) While the franchise, led by owner Arthur Blank, is staying inside the city’s perimeter (“ITP” to the locals), it’s relocating from an area considered by many to be “too black” to attract white fans. And in the name of snagging larger profits from a surrounding entertainment district, the team is razing a pair of historic black Baptist churches in the vicinity of the new stadium. The symbolism there isn’t pretty.

Unlike the cases of the Hawks and Braves, the Falcons’ star players have personified the city’s racial divide. The NFL team is the former employer of the most polarizing Atlantan of the last 40 years, Michael Vick. The year after Vick was sentenced to prison for running a dogfighting ring, Matt Ryan stepped in as the team’s star quarterback. In a piece last year, I wrote that the Falcons’ stadium push, “one that almost certainly won’t benefit the mostly poor and black residents” contributed to the view that Ryan, who is white, is “a tool of a power structure that games the system … while the less fortunate get left behind yet again. To those unwilling to embrace Ryan, no matter how many touchdown passes he throws, he is merely a digestible public face for a rapacious corporation.”

When it comes to on-field matters, winning cures all, at least temporarily. If Ryan keeps up his incredible play and leads Atlanta to the Super Bowl, he’ll be embraced by every Falcons fan regardless of race and class. Indeed, if any of these local teams would win a championship, a feat that has eluded the Braves, Hawks, and Falcons for all but one of their 142 collective, full seasons in Atlanta, then the whole city would be dizzy with happiness. But once that winning feeling fades, a fundamental reality persists. Atlanta’s stadiums and arenas aren’t forces for unity in a divided city. They are battlegrounds, and they will remain that way for a very long time.