Racist Email? Bruce Levenson Blames Black People for Low Atlanta Hawks Ticket Sales

Are black people the reason why corporations and white males aged 35-55 don’t buy season tickets?  Donald Sterling hasn’t been around to give his opinion, but Bruce Levenson certainly has.

Among the many factors that could contribute to poor game attendance, the former Atlanta Hawks owner lists in an email to his colleagues the following: the staff (who Levenson would like you to know are great, btw!), vendors (better than other arenas, but he still would love a BBQ stand), the stadium restaurant, and lastly, most importantly, black people.  In fact, while everything else gets a passing reference, black people become the centerpiece of his memo.

Surprisingly, there isn’t even a footnote regarding what should be the most obvious to a sports fan (let alone a franchise owner) when considering why attendance and sales are so low: the team. A winning franchise rockets the sales of just about everything. The most important factor causing the lack of Hawks interest is that the franchise is, at best, mediocre.

Being an Ohioan myself, Cleveland Cavaliers’ paraphernalia materialized overnight across the state when Lebron James, as a high school graduate, made it his home. Ticket sales had never reached as high. Similarly, fans from Killeen, Texas to Springfield, Connecticut rushed to grab the latest Miami Heat gear a couple years ago when Wade, James, and Bosh converged in Florida to win two NBA championships.

No matter, more than three-quarters of his e-mail is a demagogue’s race analysis and I’m still trying to determine whether it’s a businessman’s sales and marketing strategy or a prelude to the fonder times of the ol’ mason-dixie.  The talking points are reminiscent of political primaries when Romney was secretly recorded making untimely and sweeping statements about the 47% of Americans he couldn’t care less for.

In the private e-mail, Levenson shared his insight from a couple years ago into what he found to be the cause of declining ticket and concession sales at the Atlanta home games. The large number of black season ticket holders were targeted as the primary reason for declining sales, poor home game rallies, and late fan arrivals.

He noted that years back the audience was 70% black, the cheerleaders were black, the music played at games was hip-hop, and the bars were 90% black.

Demonstrating the inadequacy of Atlanta’s sports scene to the recipients of his email, he mentions the sports scene in Washington DC is still a mere 15% black, as opposed to the Atlanta stadiums 70%, despite DC’s more affluent black community. This all seemed to be his call for a collaborative brainstorm on how to acquire more white and wealthy season ticket holders.

He starts by boasting about the recent reduction of blacks from 70% to 40% of ticket holders (still four times higher than other stadiums, he notes).  But not without expressing trepidation that white ticket holders still perceive the game attendance as 70% black. When people say the stadium is in the “wrong place,”  he acknowledges its code for “too many blacks.”

It’s a notion that is caused by what he assumes is a white fear of large numbers of blacks, which was also concluded in arecent study by Zoltan Hajnal, a professor of political science at the University of California.  Hajnal states that whites are willing to live in diverse neighborhoods, but identify “diversity” as being 90% white and 10% black, whereas blacks who are also willing to live in diverse neighborhoods identify them as half black and half white.

Some people argue that Levenson’s email is indisputably racist.  Others, such as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, a black NBA legend, suggest that Levenson is simply a businessman and not a racist, as if the two terms are mutually exclusive.  Kareem believes that as “cringe worthy” as Levenson’s remarks were, they were “reasonable in determining how to create a larger customer base.”  Kareem continued, insisting that Levenson “wasn’t valuing white fans over blacks.  He was trying to figure out a way to change what he thought was the white perception in Atlanta so he could see more tickets.”

Kareem makes it sound as though Levenson is standing out and challenging “white perceptions.”  But that’s not even remotely true.  Levenson falls in line with them.

Kareem disappoints with his glaring oversight; the Hawks’ mediocre performance, not blacks, causes poor ticket sales. Changing the white perception in Atlanta by enacting policies to scale down black attendance isn’t only valuing white fans over blacks, it is conforming to their alleged racial bias and condoning their behavior. Without being as overtly racist as Donald Sterling, he affirms and gives power to Sterling’s structural racism. The advocation of colorblindness by Kareem and others is a dangerous posturing, suggesting the policies which affect races differently are an unintended or a coincidence.

Kareem further hypothesizes about mostly white establishments seeking black clientele, asking, “If Levenson’s arena was filled mostly with white 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?” Would he?

White clientele isn’t blamed for lack of sales unless we’re talking about Afro-Sheen quarterly profits. White clientele is popularly correlated with success, while minorities are mostly an afterthought.  Even successful blacks rocking certain clothing brands (Tommy Hilfiger) or expensive drinks to imbibe (Cristal) have been shunned by the white CEO’s of the brands they enjoy. In the case of Cristal, Jay-Z, who rapped that he stopped drinking Cristal because the “mothafuckas racist” seemingly spiked an increase in Cristal sales once his song was released. Yet to be determined is if sales jumped to support an accused racist, or simply because of the name-drop.

Kareem’s appeal is one of false equivalency. Even if a stadium were predominantly white, diversifying by attracting minorities to the games doesn’t sell more tickets.  A successful franchise that sports fans of every color can enthusiastically rally to victory does. What kind of businessman doesn’t realize the success of his product on the court determines his bottom line more than how many black people are on the kiss cam (another discrepancy he’s “bitched” about to the executives)?  In the traditionally Southern Republic of Georgia, maybe he prefers the kissin-cousins-cam to attract the coveted white ticket holders.

Much of this comes right on the heels of another big decision in Atlanta. The Atlanta Braves are moving from their home stadium in Fulton County (47% white), popularly known as “black mecca,” to Cobb County, a predominantly white suburb. Cobb County has recently rejected a metropolitan rapid transit system that would lead from “black mecca” and into the Cobb County neighborhood for reasons that are alleged to include keeping “certain people” out.  It certainly wasn’t rejected for the money, as Cobb County is expected to spend almost $450 million on building the new Braves stadium right after cutting 182 teachers from their schools earlier this spring. Regardless, this municipal decision is another demonstration of policies that affect socioeconomics, whether intentionally or not.

Whether Levenson is racist or a tone-deaf Obama liberal, he has since issued an apology. He expressed remorse about making “cliches” out of Hawks fans, and for implying that white fans are more valuable than black fans. But I wouldn’t be surprised to find the contents of his email reflect the same concerns and questions expressed by many other owners, executives, politicians, and businesses.

He still doesn’t seem to realize if you build it (a successful franchise), they will come.  If they don’t, at least you have some black folk to blame.


Ian Patterson
Ian Patterson is a veteran living in Seattle, WA where he is studying electrical engineering. He is a fan of craft beers, the outdoors, and really, really good hip-hop music. He enjoys writing critically on content related to race, class, politics and occasionally music and film. Need any recommendations?