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Atlanta and Memphis: Two Cities, Two Teams

Atlanta and Memphis are both southern cities with racial tensions. This is part of living in the South. The owner of the Atlanta Hawks thinks that race is a factor - perhaps the main factor - as to why his team struggles to draw fans. We talk about that.

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Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

As a transplanted Memphian, living in Atlanta, I've always wondered why the Atlanta Hawks aren't more popular. They've been fairly successful, make the playoffs more often than not, and yet they lose money year after year.

Bruce Levenson, the majority owner of the Atlanta Hawks owner has his own theories, and they were so spot-on that after his email became public, he has been forced agreed to sell his interest in the Hawks. You can find the full text of the email here.

Levenson doesn't come across as hateful. He is not Donald Sterling. More than anything, Levenson comes across as an owner who sees his business struggling and thinks he can assess the problem in the time it takes to send an email. Yet his remarks are bad for business, and that seems to be the one crime a billionaire can't outrun these days.

First, let me re-diagnose the problem in as much time as Levenson took: the Hawks aren't making money because Atlanta is a bad sports city.

In terms of wins, the Hawks are a fairly successful franchise, but they've lacked a signature star since Dominique Wilkins used to take flight.  As far as putting butts in the seats, conventional wisdom says those are the two easiest ways to do it. Weirdly, the Hawks have done pretty well at one of these, and it has done little to boost attendance.

I wondered if someone had done a study on the relationship between winning games and attendance. Google once again proved that the Internet contains nearly all of human knowledge.  I found a study that broke down NBA attendance per win for every year from 1985 - 2013. The chart is below:


This is not a definitive study. The data has not been adjusted for size of arenas, so likely numbers are skewed towards teams who have larger arenas and perhaps newer ones. The teams are oriented left to right, with the leftmost team drawing the fewest fans per win.  According to this measure, the Atlanta Hawks have the "least loyal" fan base in the league, while the Grizzlies have the "most loyal." I suspect the Grizzlies numbers are augmented by when the FedEx Forum was built, as well as the relatively few years the Grizzlies have been mediocre. Still, it is fair to say the city of Memphis supports the Grizzlies more than Atlanta supports the Hawks.

The full post can be found here.

The Hawks battle several issues in establishing a fan base. In no particular order:

1). A sprawling suburban population must drive 45 minutes to an hour to get to a 6:00 pm game.  I live in Roswell, which is at least an hour away from Phillips Arena, and Roswell isn't even the farthest suburb away from downtown. Memphis has the same issue, but on a much smaller scale, which pretty much means it doesn't have the same issue.

2). The daily post-apocalyptic nightmare known as Atlanta's "rush hour." Memphis has no such thing as traffic. If there is traffic, it is because of a wreck or construction which is not the same thing. Atlanta is impossible to navigate for at least 20% of every weekday.

3). During the lean years, I remember hearing that one of the reasons the Grizzlies didn't draw fans was due to the lack of a downtown population base.  Atlanta shares this problem. The difference is that downtown Atlanta is not a destination. Downtown Memphis has Beale Street, great restaurants off Beale, and other stuff I'm not even thinking about right now. Nobody from Atlanta goes out downtown. Midtown is practically a separate downtown: a collection of high rises, bars, restaurants and Piedmont Park all within walking distance.  If you're going to a Hawks game, you're going somewhere else afterwards.

4). According to recent population estimates, nearly 47% of Atlanta's residents were born outside of Georgia. Atlanta has been an attractive city for people to move to, not least of which is a good job market. I'm one of them. Nearly every friend I've made since moving to Atlanta (warning: small sample size) was born somewhere other than Atlanta. All of them are fans of non-Atlanta teams. The Atlanta Hawks are my second favorite NBA team, and while I am not the typical NBA fan, I imagine this relationship is fairly common in that 47%.

Contrast this with Memphis, where only 35% of the population was born in another state.

5). MARTA's public transit system has a stop that couldn't be more convenient, positioned directly below Phillips Arena. I've used it no less than five times.

Very nice except that Cobb County and it's roughly 700,000 residents have voted down a sales tax since the 1970's that would allow MARTA train service to run there. Anti-MARTA campaigns focused on what element public transit may bring into the suburbs, rather than where suburbans could go on public transport. This article is a nice history lesson on Atlanta's public transit system, but scroll down to paragraph 17 for the juicier portion. Levenson's theories that black people scare white people isn't new. The term "white flight" isn't new, and I say that as a white person who has taken flight. What choice do we have now? Cobb County has the best school systems and good school systems ensure propriety values stay high and our kids have the best education possible.

According to the 2010 Census, there are 2.49 white people for every black person that lives in Cobb County. This has effectively created a zone in which 700,000 prospective fans - most of whom are the very white fans Levenson yearns for - have no public transit option to get to a game. Again, the train stops directly below the arena. Couldn't be any more convenient.

As a sad hilarious aside, guess where the new Braves stadium is going. If you guessed the public transit desert known as Cobb County, you get a gold star.  Cobb County won't pay for public transit, but they will pay for a new stadium for the Braves (the current Braves stadium, no bullshit, is slightly older than my car).

Contrast this with Memphis, which has no train system, and whose bus system I have never used because, again, Memphis does not have traffic.

6). The Hawks face major competition for their customers' time, interest, and money from three other major sports franchises - the Cobb County Atlanta Braves, the Atlanta Falcons, and even the Atlanta Thrashers. (Editor's note: When they were still located in Atlanta.) The addition of the as-yet-to-be-named MLS Atlanta team will further spread the city's attention thin.

The Braves are very clearly the team of the sprawling suburbs. Part of the reasoning behind relocating out of the city to which they owe their name was this map. It shows where all the Braves season ticket holders live. The entire left half of the dark red section is Cobb County.


The Grizzlies main competition is the Memphis Tigers, which sometimes provides nice synergy when they play back to back games in the FedExForum.

On the whole, the Grizzlies have fewer "problems" than the Hawks do, but they also have fewer "opportunities" for fans. The greater Memphis area holds between 1.3mm - 2.4mm people, depending on which states you stretch into. The greater Atlanta area - spoiler alert - is bigger, with a population somewhere between 5.5mm and 6.5mm, or at least 2.29 times the size. Phillips Arena holds 18,238. At a certain point, the failure to attract fans given such a large population, is deflating. No wonder Levenson was left to grasp at straws.

So what does all of this have to do with race?

Any serious study of why the Hawks have historically failed to draw begins with the above six points, and probably takes into account a whole slew of other points I'm probably not thinking about.

But even talking about something as simple as public transit service eventually touches race. I'm not a historian, but unpacking something as simple as how the suburbs have exploded inextricably touches race. Faulkner said, "The past isn't dead. It isn't even the past." He wasn't talking about public transit, but if he were alive in 2014, he would be. (Editor's note: that was the author, not the handsome managing editor - CF)

So don't call me crazy if I think that in part of his message Levenson calls a spade a spade. If "X" = "number of white people who think Atlanta Hawks games are too black for them," I don't know what "X" equals, but it's definitely not "zero."

But one must ask themselves if white people would flock to the Hawks if the in-game music wasn't Hip Hop. If it were changed to something Levenson thinks 35-55 year old white people like (eg: "Dave Matthews Band," or just something with a guitar solo).  As an expert in white people, I can confirm they do, in fact, also like hip hop (see: "What, Turning Down For").

And that's the funny part of this whole thing.  Even though Levenson is saying a lot of things we already know, it's filtered through the lens of someone who has zero awareness of 2014. The difference between causation and correlation has fallen apart. It's as if someone gave Michael Scott the Atlanta Hawks and asked him to fix it.

And maybe being a farce isn't enough of a reason to sell your interest in the team, but the part where Levenson matter-of-factly states his best clients are a problem because they aren't the right color, like, is. The part that implies there are few fathers and sons at the game because there are too many blacks. The kiss cam should be more white?

Maybe we don't want to know what every owner thinks of us fans. Maybe the owner of our favorite team looks at us and thinks, "I like your money, but I wish you didn't scare away people with more of it."

The Grizzlies have done a great job unifying a similarly divided city. Maybe it helps that the team's best player, Marc Gasol, is a contradiction in terms - a white, Spanish man who also grew up in Memphis. A cultural minority who looks like the majority. A supremely talented individual playing a position more accustomed to power than grace. The Grizzlies haven't run from cultural diversity, but instead embraced it. Part of the subtext of "Grit and Grind" is the sense that Memphis is a rough place, a place where mistakes are made. In fact, sometimes it feels as if the only things Memphians are in a hurry to do are eat pork, drink beer and screw up.

But there's good in that. Perhaps only in a flawed city - a city that flaunts its flaws - could Zach Randolph enjoy a career renaissance. Only in a city that shoves it's tattered edges in your face could Tony Allen become a cultural icon.

Then again, maybe this is all narrative constructed after a few winning seasons. Eight years ago, I heard similar comments about Grizzlies games. The upper deck wasn't safe. It was too dark. You don't understand; you didn't grow up in Memphis (as if my home state of Louisiana didn't have it's own checkered history with race).

The simple fact is that all of these problems are problems until they're not. People flocking from other cities is an opportunity for growth, not a reason for poor attendance. Nobody will drive from the suburbs is another way of saying we have too many people in our city, too many potential fans. Too many other teams drawing interest away? Maybe your marketing and sales teams are just using that as an excuse. Sports teams embrace their cities, and everything and everyone in it. That includes the challenges. Otherwise, they move to Cobb County.

Just because Memphis embraces its rough edges doesn't mean that racism is dead there. I'm not drawing a straight line between the two, and that's the point. All I know is that, for a couple hours, maybe a basketball game helps us come together. Watch a game. Slap hands (or fist bump, if you prefer). Drink a beer, and eat barbecue nachos. Accept a player who tries hard, a little too hard at times. Defend a player who punches another because "he wit us." Who fouls on three point attempts. Who turns the water off at will.

What does this have to do with Atlanta? I'm not sure. But race has something to do with it.  Just not in the way Levenson thinks.