My mother always used to tell me not to let my mouth write a check that my ass can’t cash…
A Twitter storm emerged over the weekend after a two-year-old racist e-mail from Hawks owner Bruce Levenson came out. In the e-mail the owner is expressing his concerns about dwindling season ticket and food & beverage sales at Philips Arena. Some of the reasons he attributed to low sales in both areas is that audiences at Hawks games were predominantly black, which is an anomaly within the NBA. Most NBA patrons are professional white men ages 35-55, and Mr. Levenson believed that by playing too much hip hop music at games, giving away tickets in the surrounding black communities, and having too many events at the arena that cater to “black” tastes, the organization was isolating a key audience for the organization’s fiscal health.
Never mind the fact that the Hawks have not been Atlanta’s darling team since the late 90s, so getting rid of the reputation that the Hawks suck is a major barrier to getting an increase in season ticket sales. People support the Falcons and the Braves more because they win more. Or let’s talk about the fact that Atlanta is unlike other cities: all of the black people here are not poor. They have the hot-shot, power suit jobs Monday through Friday, and they might sag their pants on Saturday. But, in a post-Donald Sterling NBA an e-mail like this one was less than welcome, no matter whether it was written two years ago or not.
However, I’d like to just keep it real for a moment, which in Mr. Levenson’s misguided racism, he actually did. In my work as Public Relations and/or Marketing Manager at a few different arts venues in a couple of different states, I have heard conversations and sat through meetings where discussions about getting black people to become season ticket holders sounded just like this e-mail. I have also sat through meetings where there was discussion about whether doing too much urban/ethnic/minority/choose your code word for non-white programming alienates and isolates white patrons, which in turn causes organizations to lose money.
The harsh bit of truth written in this e-mail that no one wants to acknowledge is this paragraph written by Mr. Levenson: “I think southern whites simply were not comfortable being in an arena or at a bar where they were in the minority. On fan sites I would read comments about how dangerous it is around Philips yet in our 9 years, I don’t know of a mugging or even a pick pocket incident. This was just racist garbage. When I hear some people saying the arena is in the wrong place I think it is code for there are too many blacks at the games.”
Blaming too many black people for the Hawks financial miscalculations is extreme and misguided, especially considering the race of most of the players, however, Bruce Levenson did not say anything in that e-mail that I have not heard said in meeting-after-meeting at theater after art gallery after magazine after website. We never like the ugly truth, but that does not make it false. The only thing false about his assumptions in that paragraph is that he limited it to the South. I’m not going to burn him at the stake for speaking a partial truth. What I hope happens, is that this can start a conversation about racial and socio-political and socio-economic disparities that prevent people of color from being season ticket holders. Better yet, let’s have a conversation about how American buying habits are changing, and how in 30 years the concept of a season ticket to anything will be extinct.
What are your thoughts?