ESPN does an annual survey where they try to determine what is important to fans and then assess the teams in the four major pro sports in those terms. The survey is more about attitudes than anything else as only one of the eight categories the survey boils down into has an objective component. This year the Atlanta Hawks came in 94th out of the 122 teams, which is actually up from last year's ranking of 103. The blurb they have about the Hawks is quick reading, but there is another story hidden here if you look closely at the numbers. That's what I want to explore.
While it may be fun to consider pro sports in its totality, let's drop the apples from our oranges and only focus on the NBA. Here the Hawks rank 23 out of 30. Before I go into the individual categories and look at how the Hawks did, let's acknowledge that the Sacramento Kings are likely to finish dead last in almost every fan-voted category. The reason is simple if ownership threatens to move the team, works out a deal to keep the team there, and then pulls out of that deal for no real reason then you are going to have a very unhappy fan base. The survey backs this up and this concept will come back up shortly, but let's begin with the one tangible category (one in which the Hawks did very well) bang for the buck.
Bang For The Buck – This category is defined as wins over the last 3 years (regular + post season) per revenues from fans adjusted for league schedules. The Hawks are 5th best in the NBA in this regard. 10th in the win category and 7th in the cost index. Let me say that a quick glance reveals that maybe post-season isn't weighted heavy enough or at least not weighted exponentially. Surely the Mavericks with a title in the last 3 years deserve to be higher than 15th in the win category. I also want to call out that evidently the Bobcats have been so bad that if you sort by NBA teams only you find they were 31st in wins, which is amazingly bad because there are only 30 teams. The Hawks have been a consistent playoff team making the 2nd round in 2 of the 3 seasons and that is how they rank 10th. As for the cost index, or more accurately fan revenues, you can attribute that to the way Billy Knight and the ASG build the team. By slowly building into a playoff team and investing big in an introverted main player they really avoided the rampant excitement that results in bandwagon fans, constant sell-outs and the opportunity to drastically raise ticket prices. It wasn't their intention at the time, but my wallet thanks them.
Fan Relations – ESPN defines this as "openness and consideration toward fans by players, coaches and management." Atlanta is a distant 27th in this category among NBA teams and it could have been worse. There are 4 subcategories to this category and it's interesting to think about why the scores (or fan perceptions) were so bad. First up is players behaving professionally on and off the court. For the subcategory we were 22nd (our best of any subcategory). While I'm not aware of any off-court problems, I don't see much change in this category as long as Josh Smith is on the team. Too much reputation to overcome for complaining and pouting to achieve real movement. The other subcategories find the Hawks in the bottom 3 in the NBA and considering my observation about the Kings that is a real indictment of the team. These other subcategories are players and owners appreciate the fans, players accessible to fans, and provide avenue for feedback. The appreciation score is predictable. Although they try to distance themselves it is the ownership group that sold the Thrashers so they could be moved. It'll be a while before the ownership group scores well in any survey. You also had Josh Smith who had bristled at public criticism of parts of his game and Joe Johnson appearing cold, distant, and unhappy. Those perceptions probably affected the accessibility score as well. Remember these are perception scores and not fact-based. For the purpose of the survey if the fans think you are unfriendly, then you are unfriendly. Finally, the feedback category score is either the result of hatred toward ownership or a clear message that the occasional town hall meeting isn't cutting it.
Ownership – ESPN defined this as "honesty and loyalty to core players and local community." As I'd already hinted this one likely won't be good. The Hawks were 25th in the NBA. Among the teams below the Hawks were the Kings, which tried to move; and the Nets, which did move. Going to the subcategories we see that the Hawks were 29th in owner honesty, 25th in commitment to the community and will not leave, and 13th in keeping the core together and loyalty to the players. The first two have to strongly impacted by the Thrasher demise. The last one is fair in that the ownership did pay to keep the core together. Even the trades of Joe this summer (likely too late to affect the survey) could be seen as necessary to keep Josh in the future and still being loyal to the core of the team.
Affordability – This is made up of the price of tickets, parking, and concessions, but as I read the survey I take it as not actual price comparisions, but rather the impressions of the fans in these areas. The Hawks rank 17th in this area (17th in tickets, 18th in parking, and 22nd in concessions). I don't really have much to say on this one except I have trouble as a fan myself even evaluating it because I've not seen pro sports live in other cities or even other sports locally in any recent fashion. All stadium prices seem high, but really no higher than movie theaters.
Stadium Experience – ESPN defines this as "quality of arena and game-day promotions as well as friendliness of environment." Here the Hawks are 25th in the NBA (23rd for the stadium, 29th for promotions, and 27th for fan-friendly environment). If I were Hawks management this one would concern me because it is what your are truly selling. I can see the game better and cheaper at home on high def. I want to see it live for the energy of the crowd and the excitement. The 23rd on stadium is hard to quantify because how many stadiums does the responding fan have first hand experience with. Finally getting the end scoreboards fixed and providing reliable wi-fi for the season ticket holders will probably improve the score in the future. 27th in environment is low, but I'd like to credit the team for having two 6th man sections during the playoffs. In the past they would move these cheering sections to the rafters for a big money game. Maintaining 2 sections really helped the crowd energy and if we had made it beyond Boston I think more people would have noticed. 29th on promotions, contests, and giveaways (only the extremely upset Kings fans rated their team lower) is telling though. I don't have a solution in mind, but essentially dead last sends a clear message that the fans are not amused.
Players – ESPN defines this category as "effort on the field and likability off it." To my surprise the Hawks ranked #28 in this category (25th in likeability and 28th in effort). I'm shocked. How can a team that overcame so many injuries to put up a good record be seen as poor in effort? But as I said earlier perception does equal reality in terms of the survey. My only theory is that this score is a reaction to Josh Smith's tendency to complain about a lack of call and fail to get back on defense. It's obvious that Josh plays hard, but those incidents probably undermine the perception of the Hawks players.
Coaching – ESPN lists this as "strength of on-field leadership." The Hawks rank 27th in the NBA. Actually, I'm surprised it isn't lower. Larry Drew has several things working against him in terms of fan perceptions. First, he appeared to get the job by being the lowest cost option. Next, he indulges his superstars to the point of undermining running a specific system. Beyond that he appears to treat non-stars unfairly to make up for not holding the stars to any standard of behavior. Finally, in the playoffs he's appeared out of his depth except for the Orlando series. Against Chicago and especially Boston, it was widely discussed that he was outcoached.
Title Track – ESPN defines this category as "championships already won or expected in the lifetime of current fans." Here the Hawks surprisingly ranked 24th in the NBA. I think few respondents were alive for the 1958 St. Louis Hawks championship and if they were they might not even associate it with the Atlanta version of the Hawks. Therefore I consider this one in direct relation to hope. The thing is until Joe was traded I don't think there was any hope of advancement. Does hope abound since the trade? It's improved but I think this one is a result on some other fan bases being even more jaded than the Hawks fans. When you look at all the sports, 7 of the bottom 13 are NBA teams which might indicate that fans don't see the NBA as an equal opportunity league. On the bright side the Hawks were #110 overall which was 2 ahead of the Chicago Cubs, so we're not quite that defeatist yet.
That's the guts of the ESPN survey. As a Hawks fan how accurate was the survey results with respect to your own feelings? Do you see the Hawks franchise climbing the list in the future or is there too much baggage to ever climb out from the lower reaches?