Atlanta Hawks attendance and the "R" word

It is no secret the Hawks are not drawing that well at Philips. You only need to look at the upper deck of a Tuesday night game to see. In their best season in years, they currently sit 20th in the league. And like last year, I assume they are near the top of giving away tickets that count for their attendance totals. Often these conversations lead to excusing why we do or don't go, but in all honesty, if you read this blog, I know most of you when able would go to the game. Still, there are lingering reasons why many people are able and unwilling.

To start, let me make a few things clear or at least known about what I think about Atlanta.

  1. I think Atlanta is a great sports town.
  2. A lot transplants reside here.
  3. The city has a history of failing to support teams.
  4. And supporting teams ravenously.
  5. We are in an economic recession.
  6. All five of these things are no excuse for the Hawks to not draw better.

So with that I offer one more possibility. If you disagree with me, do it respectfully. If you disagree with a commenter, do that respectfully. I am not posting this because it is a heated issue, but I know it is one. In the end, I am discussing a culture not necessarily an active set of beliefs. Go Hawks!

The NBA is a superstar league. I contend that is largely for national and global marketing purposes and not specifically to build up teams and cities. In a sense, the NBA does not want LeBron to be a huge star to help Cleveland. They want him to be huge for the nationally televised games and jerseys he sells in China.

And so while I get that people always want to see the best (including myself) and are drawn to superstars playing great, specific teams have shown in countless places that you do not need a super star to draw well. And Miami has shown a super star can draw poorly. A marquee player would be nice, but it is far from necessary.

I also find perfectly reasonable that Atlanta has a lot to offer as a city. There are many things vying for one's attention on a nightly basis, but again, I find this reason to be viable but, in the end, still an excuse. In a city of millions, 18,000 basketball fans are available and able to see a game every night.

Certainly the five factors I mentioned play a part in the Hawks poor draw despite the pool of fans available. And so some throw in traffic as another disconnect. It all plays a part no doubt, but I am beginning to think of other reasons. Darker, less comfortable ones.

And the one that has bubbled up for me recently is racism. I am not saying it is a major reason, and I, of course, don't know for a fact that it is a reason at all, but it makes sense that racism plays a role with the Hawks when compared to the narrative of the other pro sports teams in the city (think 1991-94 Braves, Vick's Falcons, 1998 Falcons, Nique's Hawks, etc).

At this point, to truly be a fan of the Hawks, you have to like basketball, and specifically you have to like the Hawks. It sounds obvious, but compared to the Braves and Falcons, the Hawks are operating on the biggest blank slate. There are nights in Philips that are dead as far as energy. There is no tradition that you can get caught up in (two years ago the intro had Ten Turner buying the team and Spud Webb's dunk contest as two of the eight highlights). No recent championship run. No MVP level performance night in and night out. You have to, in a sense, embrace mediocrity. Or at least you did. And if you are not already a fan of the Hawks, you probably have no idea they have risen above mediocrity and so you still feel you have to embrace it anyway. You have to decide you like basketball, and you have to decide you will like basketball through the Hawks. When you don't have anything to get caught up in, all that deciding leads to a keen focus on the exterior. It just does.

There are no helmets and violence to help ignore race, there is no championship mystique that has been passed down from generation to generation, and there is no insider loyalty like you see in colleges. What you have to do to become a Hawks fan is say, "I enjoy these five African American, tattooed, and athletically gifted, but with obvious flaws and how they play the game." I am not sure many white Atlantans can do that.

I am not saying it is intentional or malicious. I am not saying it is right, but as a white man myself, with mostly white friends, I have routinely heard, if not racist comments about my Hawks fandom or experience at Philips, at least stereotypes of what it must be like. Even with a more general example, like the argument over quality of college basketball verses NBA that I have with many of my friends, it often boils down to my friends giving the college guy the benefit of the doubt over the NBA guy. And they can because they are really giving the benefit of the doubt to university.

And in that vein, maybe a better word than racism is "benefit of the doubt." Without an all world superstar that transcends color on the court, many white Atlantans cannot take the step to start coming to games. They will watch from the comfort of their television. They will go full bore come playoff time, but that 82 game commitment, that, in a sense, "coming out" as an NBA fan is foreign concept for many white southerns. They just cannot take that step. Call it cultural, call it racist, but call it something because whether you think it is a small reason for the low turnout or a big reason, it is a reason.

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