Professional sports are under a microscope lately, from Ray Rice and the NFL to the owner of Atlanta Hawks and the NBA.
There is no question about what should or should have happened in the case of the NFL and Ray Rice.
He should be fired from The Baltimore Ravens.
The NFL responded badly to the entire situation.
But, when it comes to the NBA and the Hawks, there is no real consensus about whether an email written by the team’s owner Bruce Levenson is racist and warrants him selling his controlling interest in the team.
In August of 2012 Levenson wrote an email to his fellow owners about how to get more white fans to attend the games and to become season ticket holders.
Let me be perfectly clear.
If this email is all there is to this story, I don’t see the controversy.
In the email Levenson wrote about how impressed he was with the professionalism and friendliness of the arena staff.
Levenson wrote quote, “To this day, I can not get the ushers to call me Bruce yet they insist on me calling them by their first names.”
He went on to write about attracting 35-55 year-old white males and corporations to buy season tickets because the are the quote, “primary demo for season tickets around the league.”
For background, in television the desired age demographic is 18 to 49 year olds.
According to The Nielsen Company which measures television ratings, that age range is more important than the total number of viewers watching any program at any time.
Guess which age range every single television show and media company targets? 18 to 49 year olds.
And they target that group unapologetically through programming or through the diversity of the people on said television shows or broadcasts.
That’s not a secret by any means.
Levenson also wrote that by his estimation the people attending Hawks’ games are 70 percent black.
Having lived in Atlanta and having attended many Hawks’ games that number is probably accurate.
He also wrote about the ethnicity of the cheerleaders, the type of music played at the games, the clientele of the bars and restaurants in proximity of the arena and so on.
Again, having lived in Atlanta and having worked in the same building where the Hawks’ games are played, all of the above are mostly black.
He was stating the truth.
What made many people uncomfortable, and rightly so, was that he surmised that maybe many of the teams black fans don’t have the spendable income to invest in season tickets and team merchandise.
However, in the period that email was written, according to the Economic Policy Institute, “Atlanta ranked 13th, with a black unemployment rate of 15.7%.”
The same study showed that while the metropolitan areas with the five largest black populations were about average in their black-to-white unemployment rate disparity, in 2010, Atlanta, however had the largest disparity with a ratio of 2.2-to-1.
What that means is blacks in Atlanta were hit hardest by the recession and had less disposable income than their white counterparts.
Here’s the important part, context.
Levenson prefaced some of his remarks as his own unscientific theory by writing quote, “My theory is that the black crowd scared away the whites and there are simply not enough affluent black fans to build a signficant season ticket base. Please dont get me wrong. There was nothing threatening going on in the arean back then. i never felt uncomfortable, but 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.”
The email was not racist.
There is no Donald Sterling-esque smoking gun here.
He didn’t say he wanted fewer black people.
He said he wanted more people of the desired demographic of his business, white men between the ages of 35 to 55-years old.
In my estimation, his message to his colleagues was a smart one; by constantly playing their strong hand or preaching to the choir, they were in essence fishing in an empty pond.
His words may have been inartful, but the man was simply trying to run a business and not lose money.
He was strategizing in an email on how to reach out to a coveted demographic to put more butts in the seats.
It is just that simple.