Atlanta Hawks CEO Steve Koonin talks diversity, corruption, Ashley Madison(s)

The sports exec speaks to Diana Bradley about his stance on corruption in sports and the franchise's efforts to tackle diversity

In September, the Atlanta Hawks brought on Ashley Madison – three real-life people named Ashley Madison, that is, and not the infidelity dating website – as spokespeople to promote the team’s 10-game flex plans. Where do you draw the line between entertaining and inappropriate?
Today’s Millennials were not raised like I was on Bugs Bunny and Road Runner cartoons – they were raised on The Simpsons and Family Guy. To be relevant to a younger audience, you’ve got to have an edge and a different voice and sense of humor than what my generation is used to. So what I might find outrageous, they find mundane.

I don’t think a lot of Millennials found [the Ashley Madison stunt] to be anything other than what it was intended to be – attention getting, motivating, and hilarious. Knowing what voice to use to market to your audience in is key. Our Ashley Madison campaign was bold, but it was accept-able where we were targeting. We didn’t use broad-base TV – we used targeted digital.

With the vast amount of scrutiny placed on sports businessmen after this year’s FIFA exposé and Deflategate, is corruption a universal issue in sports?
I have lived my life always by the rules of integrity. I treat people the way I want to be treated – with respect, honesty, and dignity. I don’t feel there is any extra scrutiny on me because of what I do.

Last year, Atlanta Hawks controlling owner Bruce Levenson self-reported to the NBA that he sent a racist email to then Hawks president Danny Ferry in August 2012, which said he believed the team’s fan base was too heavily African American. How has the franchise been managing its reputation in light of this incident?
We were transparent, told people what we were going to do, and showed action rather than words. In December, we hired Nzinga Shaw as chief diversity and inclusion officer for the Atlanta Hawks and the Philips Arena – the first role like this in professional sports on the team level.

We also built bridges through basketball to several communities in the Atlanta area. We became inclusive and created opportunities for everyone to come to our games. We reached out to our constituents that were offended by the comments and reinforced that those were individual views, not the organization’s views. 

Our business plan, which we built a week after the crisis became public, now states that we be bold in how we do business to build and sustain relevance; be financially disciplined and focus on revenue growth; build bridges through basketball to our community with The Atlanta Hawks Foundation; believe in our brand and live it as we continue to build it; and build and sustain our culture of inclusion, diversity, and Southern hospitality.

What is your approach to tackling the issue of diversity?
It is not about checking a box – it is living the life. We work with LGBT and Hispanic communities and broadcast all of our games in Spanish. We are a big supporter of the gay pride parade and have pride-branded team merchandise that will be available in our store and on our website this year. More than 50% of Atlanta’s population is African American. We continue to be connected to communities in the city. For us, diversity is the way we go to market every day. 

The Hawks just experienced a charmed season, which is a huge help when establishing a brand. Other than the talent, what are the other essential aspects of developing a strong sporting brand identity in a saturated market?

Creating relevance and understanding our target audience – which is multicultural and the next generation of Atlantans – is crucial.

This is an incredibly young town. There are 2.1 million 18- to 44-year-olds living in our city. We have the only hip-hop organist in the world of sports and we bring in food and craft beer that talks to a Millennial audience.

You’ve seen our voice in our Ashley Madison campaign and we held a Tinder-themed night. Our uniforms are also unique – they use neon colors – and strongly appeal to young people. 

What is the Atlanta Hawks’ approach to communications?
In terms of what is driving our business, it is not winning – it is how we are winning and how we play. Atlanta is a humble, young market. It respects teamwork, the innovation we have brought.

Through the research we’ve done, the feedback has been positive about how we play the game. What is interesting about that is it is not all wins and losses – this team won 54 games a few years ago and the audience wasn’t there. It is all about connecting with the fans. And that is what has been the biggest difference. In the 2014-15 season, the franchise had 25 game sellouts, compared to the previous season, which only garnered four. We celebrate our success because we are giving people something they can identify with and relate to.

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