When Bruce Levenson applied race-based marketing to hockey

When Bruce Levenson applied race-based marketing to hockey

Atlanta Hawks owner Bruce Levenson is selling his stake in the team because, as Mark Cuban accurately predicted, other NBA owners’ filthy laundry was going to get them in trouble is a post-Donald Sterling league. 

In Levenson’s case, the issue was an Aug. 2012 email that detailed the Hawks’ attendance struggles and his theory that “the black crowd scared away the whites and there are simply not enough affluent black fans to build a signficant (sic) season ticket base.”

There are competing theories as to why this email surfaced. We know Levenson self-reported it to NBA commissioner Adam Silver. According to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, it was discovered during an extensive internal audit of the team following a racist term being used in a free-agent scouting report on Luol Deng. (Per Woj, it’s that Deng has “some African in him.”)

Would a single email be enough for the NBA to ask Levenson to recuse himself? Who knows? The cynical take, however, is that he wanted out and this mea culpa was an exit strategy whose embarrassment he could recover from through his forthrightness.

One thing is clear: From a marketing perspective, Levenson viewed the Atlanta sports market in terms of black and white rather than, say, economics.

But hockey fans already knew this.

Levenson was the owner of the Atlanta Thrashers when they relocated to Winnipeg, clashing with Gary Bettman over his cut of the fees while Bettman stewed over Atlanta Spirit’s woeful mismanagement of the franchise. His group purchased the Thrashers, Hawks and the operating rights to Phillips Arena in 2005, and ran the NHL team until they were sent to the True North. 

It was a team that faced enormous attendance challenges, which weren't helped by their single brief appearance in the playoffs in franchise history. As well as their inability to hang on to star players. 

The Thrashers got a mention in that infamous email, which you can read in its entirety here:

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).

Back in 2010, Levenson’s Thrashers appeared to make an effort to recolor their “all-white” games.

And that marketing decision certainly takes on some new dynamics given his recent revelations. 

In a year’s time, Atlanta had acquired no less than seven black NHL players: They drafted Evander Kane and Sebastien Owuya; they acquired Johnny Oduya, Dustin Byfuglien and Akim Aliu via trade; and they signed Anthony Stewart and Nigel Dawes. As Harrison Mooney wrote on Pass It To Bulis at the time:

“In the last fourteen months, the Atlanta Thrashers have acquired 20% of the black players in the NHL. On purpose. Considering thesensitivity around racial discourse in North America, one might be hard-pressed to find any member of the Thrashers' organization foolish enough to admit that they are intentionally acquiring black players, but this is a conspicuous trend.”

Indeed it was. The Thrashers said the trend was coincidental, with Don Waddell claiming “it wasn’t like we went out and tried to pick up black players.” He also denied any notion of exploitation within their acquisition of seven black hockey players and marketing them to a city that was 50-percent black.

That said, there was a new advertising push after those players joined the team, on urban music stations and in publications geared toward the African-American audience. They claim they didn't go out and try to pick up black players ... but they definitely went out and picked up black media outlets through which to promote them.

Looking back on it now, this is all very Bruce Levenson, isn't it? And those denials seem completely hollow.

For the Hawks, he felt that white people were repelled from going to the arena because “the music is hip-hop” and “the cheerleaders are black.” The “black crowd scared away the whites.”

For the Thrashers, black people weren’t coming to the games because everything was white, from the crowd to the players -- or so the thinking probably went. 

White people don’t like black things! Black people only like black things! Screw economics and on-ice success, this is clearly the issue!

What’s interesting about both approaches, by the way, is that while the hair-trigger reaction is to deem it Sterling-esque racism, there’s a competing wisdom that says it’s actually inclusionary and, in the end, good business.

As Kareem-Abdul Jabbar wrote for TIME.com on Monday:

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.

Seems reasonable to ask those questions. If his arena was filled mostly with whites and he wanted to attract blacks, wouldn’t he be asking how they could de-emphasize white culture and bias toward white contestants and cheerleaders? Don’t you think every corporation in America that is trying to attract a more diverse customer base is discussing how to feature more blacks or Asians or Latinos in their TV ads?

Condemn Levenson as you see fit (or believe that this is all a ruse so he could pop the escape hatch as an owner), but that's a solid point from Kareem.

But my two general issues with him, and his marketing, remain:

1. That his views on attracting new customers are simplistically “there’s too much” or “there’s not enough” African-American influence; like Levenson had his hands on a giant faucet that would properly modulate the amount of blackness he poured into his entertainment venue.

2. That as I said at the time on Puck Daddy, the best marketing solution remains winning. Everything else is just hollow novelty. The former can potentially be sustained for years, creating and nurturing a fan base that cuts through racial demographics. (Although this being hockey, not necessarily economic ones.) The latter is a temporary sell job, and one that might get someone on the hook but can’t reel them into the boat without the aforementioned success.

If you're interested in more on Levenson, check out Tom Ziller's post here and Woj here.