Can new demographics build a stronger Hawks fan base?

Jeff Teague has given Hawks fans many reasons to smile. (Kevin Liles-USA TODAY Sports)
Jeff Teague has given Hawks fans many reasons to smile. (Kevin Liles-USA TODAY Sports)

The East-leading Atlanta Hawks are thriving on the court, but the business side of the franchise continues to be a work in progress. In the wake of this summer's controversies involving racist comments from soon-to-be-ex-owner Bruce Levenson and general manager Danny Ferry, there have been questions as to how the Hawks organization could reach out to the community both to reassure fans that they are welcome and bring new faces into the fold. It is a serious challenge not only due to recent news, but ongoing issues regarding the Hawks' popularity in Atlanta and their inability to sell out Philips Arena.

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Kevin Arnovitz of ESPN.com spoke to several Hawks executives and representatives to understand how they're going about this process. He found that the franchise is getting creative and eschewing much conventional wisdom, including Levenson's claims that the team should focus on affluent suburban white Georgians. Here's a sample of the excellent piece:

"We call this the Alpharetta Unicorn," said [Hawks CEO Steve] Koonin. "This is the 55-year-old guy who's going to drive an hour from Alpharetta into the city with three buddies to go to the Hawks game. He doesn't exist. And there is no music, no kiss cam, no cheerleaders, no shooting for a free car, no bobbleheads ... nothing is going to change that."

In other words, the Hawks are coming as close to a write-off of the suburban white fan as a team possibly can. [...]

Though Young's remarks about economics were on point, Koonin's research told him there was still a strong base of African-American professionals and millennials in town who had money to spend, enough to bump up the Hawks' full-season ticket base from its abysmal numbers. In fact, a good amount of that money to spend is earmarked for entertainment and nights out. Those groups are spending the money -- just not on the Hawks. [...]

The research reports turned up all kinds of other findings. Millennials are far more likely than their predecessors to socialize in mixed-gender environments, yet the product was still being marketed largely as a "boys night out." The Hawks generated buzz this week by hosting "Swipe Right Night" on Wednesday, engaging the popular mobile dating app "Tinder." African-American women in Atlanta have very favorable impressions of Hawks games and are inclined to purchase single tickets, but there had never been a real effort to engage them. Since season-ticket holders of all stripes loathe being charged for preseason games, the Hawks are considering for next season hosting the games in a park adjacent to Philips Arena, and opening the gates -- FreeSeason. The Hawks also hope to collaborate with the league on a dark charcoal court, not so much to enhance the live experience, but because they want a generation of gamers to choose Atlanta when they fire up NBA2K. [...]

In the works for Philips Arena: a craft beer hall, the removal of swaths of suites to make way for party decks and cheap drinks pregame. The Hawks plan to make Mike Scott, he of the emoji tattoos, the center of an emoji campaign. And the team tweeted out an offer from Koonin before Monday's 10:40 p.m. ET tip against the Los Angeles Clippers: Bosses who allowed an employee to watch the game and come in late on Tuesday morning would be treated to a ticket for Wednesday night's home game against Memphis. The stunt was clever, and the implication from the Hawks was clear: Their fans aren't the recipients of the letter, but the millennials who need the late pass.

My ellipses elide a lot of interesting points, quotes, and details on the Hawks' efforts to reach out to the city's black and millennial residents, so I recommend reading the full story. The short story, though, is that the Hawks are forgetting the wealthy male baby boomers whom marketers usually target and reaching out to members of demographics who have likely not been directly appealed to by sports teams in the past. To make that work, they're creating an in-arena atmosphere that might often focus more on what surrounds the game than on the action on the court.

That approach isn't necessarily different from what other franchises do, but the fact that the Hawks are pursuing new groups of fans means that their efforts are going to look quite different in practice and outcome. For instance, marketers are fond of noting that millennials are keenly aware of when they're being marketed to and therefore somewhat more skeptical of traditional advertising methods. Plus, in a very basic sense, a "party atmosphere" for a crowd of 45-year-old white male fathers is going to look a lot different than a "party atmosphere" for a bunch of 20-something singles of many different backgrounds. You'll get events more like this Wednesday's "Tinder Night," not the focus-grouped fun that has become standard in popular sporting event culture over the past few decades.

The most obvious risk of this plan is that Koonin and his team end up with a conception of youth or minority culture as devised by a white executive pushing 60 years old. But it's also worth wondering if the team is almost being too clever in its pursuit of new fans when the Hawks haven't had a consistent run of contention in several decades. Arnovitz mentions the Golden State Warriors as a franchise that thrived under similar circumstances, but they had the benefit of plenty of wealthy potential fans in the Bay Area and therefore a self-selecting group of season-ticket holders who attended games for the basketball rather than the scene at the arena.

By contrast, the Hawks are trying to draw fans with an entertainment event around a basketball game instead of focusing on the central experience at Philips Arena. It's a perfectly reasonable plan given the state of affairs surrounding the franchise. For that matter, we should laud Koonin for reaching out to fans who may have been offended by this summers racial controversies, particularly given Atlanta's long history of segregation in the guise of "just business." These efforts could very well work, and there's no reason to look down on such creativity. Yet it also seems likely that the best thing for the Hawks' popularity would be if the team's current run of success extends into this spring's postseason. Homecourt advantage through the playoffs, a few series wins, and especially a first NBA Finals appearance in Atlanta would draw fans, increase excitement, and attract free agents in a way that special events never will.

This suggestion is not fresh or especially intelligent. It is simply a reminder that people tend to go to NBA games when they feel a connection to the essential product up for sale. If the Hawks' creative solutions to their problems succeed, then it will likely be because they facilitated a strong relationship between new fans and basketball itself.

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Eric Freeman is a writer for Ball Don't Lie on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at efreeman_ysports@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter!