The Atlanta Hawks are collaborating with big-name hip-hop artists like T.I., Ludacris and Big Boi in what the team calls an effort to make amends after it was revealed two officials made racially charged remarks in separate incidents.
The artists were brought in by the NBA franchise to perform during halftime and after Hawks’ home games months since former general manager Danny Ferry’s insensitive comment about Sudanese-born Luol Deng came to light in September 2014. Soon after, an internal investigation revealed that former co-owner Bruce Levenson complained in a 2012 email that blacks kept potential white fans away from games. Both came on the heels of Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling making racist remarks that were a public relations nightmare for the NBA.
Both have severed ties with the Hawks, who have since adopted the slogan “True to Atlanta” and apologized in an open letter to the city. T.I. was enlisted to appear in a commercial with Hawks CEO Steve Koonin to urge fans to attend the home opener, where he performed.
“We wanted to fix our relationship with the city,” said Koonin, an Atlanta native who is white. “Southern hip-hop is born here. It’s part of our DNA. We just believe the convergence of sports and entertainment, NBA basketball and hip-hop are a natural blend to continue to grow our business.”
Many Hawks fans have granted their forgiveness. Since the 2014 home opener, the Hawks have had 39 sellouts and an average attendance of 17,246 in the regular season including playoffs, according to the team. The Hawks’ home arena seats about 18,000.
“I don’t go to games to watch the owners,” said season ticket holder Randy Kessler, who is white. “I attend games to see the world’s best athletes compete. It’s an added benefit to see entertainers like T.I. perform. It was a great move for the Hawks.”
T.I. had performed at games before the racial incidents and had an established relationship with franchise officials. But the performances have become more frequent since Ferry and Levenson’s remarks were made public. He and Koonin both say there’s a mutual benefit: The performances help sell tickets and help the rappers push new projects and merchandise.
The rapper said the idea for music artists to perform at Hawks games originated several years ago when Hannah Kang from his Grand Hustle Records label pitched the concept to the team. In the past two seasons, 2 Chainz, Jeezy, CeeLo Green, Rich Homie Quan, Big Grams and Silento have performed at games. Most of the performers are Atlanta residents.
The artists aren’t paid, Koonin said, though some donations have been made to charitable organizations in their name in the past, including $25,000 to CeeLo’s foundation.
“I knew the executive staff prior to all the hoopla,” T.I. said. “The person at the nucleus of the conflict, I never had any much interaction with them anyway. It wasn’t very difficult for me to make a decision. I’m going to rock with the people who I know, because I can speak to their integrity. I can judge their character.”
However, Jesse Mills, who runs an Atlanta-based branding agency, cautioned that consumers may see the Hawks’ efforts as a marketing ploy. He said blending hip-hop performances with games was a smart strategic move to help rebuild initial trust in the black fan base, but he warned those rap shows would ultimately alienate whites and offend some blacks.
“It seems to me like they’re saying ‘We need more black people, get more rappers,” Mills said. “That’s the message I got as an educated, discerning African-American that doesn’t just listen exclusively to rap/hip-hop music in my playlist. There’s a contingency of others in Atlanta that I represent.”
Season ticket holder Vanessa McLemore, who is black, agreed the Hawks should look for more diversity in their musical guests moving forward. But she said the primary reason fans have attended games has been because the Hawks set a franchise-record 60 wins and earned a spot in the Eastern Conference final last season.
“The entertainment has been a good addition, but in general, it’s the fact that Hawks had a successful season last year,” said McLemore, who’s been a season-ticket holder for 14 years. “People are willing to support them again this year and let the Hawks know we are here for you.”