Sport Is The Great Equalizer, Except In the Boardroom

Two men enter, one man leaves!

Thats the infamous line from the movie Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome and to me, the ultimate description of sports. Two opponents enter the arena, and one emerges victorious. But with the transformation of sports into a business, the traditions and rules of competition have changed. Green has become the color of choice, and nowhere is that more pronounced than within the boardroom of sports.

On Sunday morning we learned of yet another NBA owner using racially insensitive language, this time in regards to team business operations. Atlanta Hawks President Bruce Levenson, in an email written to team senior management in 2012, stated:

            My theory is that the black crowd scared away the whites and there are simply not enough affluent black fans to build a significant (sic) season ticket base.

In his email, Levenson went on to detail other elements that revolved around race: The audience is 70% black. The cheerleaders are black. The music is hip-hop. We are doing after game concerts to attract more fans and the concerts are either hip hop or gospel.There are few fathers and sons at the games.

Aside from the last sentence, nothing surprised me about his statements. This is more commonplace than many believe, especially in the sports business industry. I have been in this field for 15 years and Ive experienced it before. Ive been subjected to the code words used in the office.

Ive heard the objections to targeting urban (a term with multifarious implications and definitions, one meant to be inclusive of diverse populations yet simultaneously used to masquerade the implication of black or African American) audiences. Ive been a victim of the system that I have chosen to be a part of.

But I recognize and understand it. It has exposed me to the reality where merits dont always trump differences in skin tone or ethnicity. This is why I wasnt at all shocked by the situation with the Clippers or the Hawks.

In sports business, the only color that matters is green. When shades of green start to change like leaves in the transition from summer to fall, then the other colors on the pallet become apparent; this includes black.

Skin color will be trumped by the ringing of the cash register every time. But once the din of that register begins to subside, the tides are reversed and the blame game begins. As people of color, we are used to this because we experience it in both the work place and in our everyday lives. Harlem used to be predominantly black, with a strong middle class and successful black businesses. But then incomes began dropping, business started failing and the neighborhood began to deteriorate. Then gentrification arrived and things miraculously improved. Roads were suddenly repaired, new apartment building were developed faster than the projects had security cameras installed, major franchises set up shop and green once again is the most popular color in the neighborhood; only this time, white has been added to the color pallet.

While this is a simplified description of urban revitalization, it sums up what we witness in the inner city. I am a true born and raised New York City kid, so I know first-hand how the process works. I grew up in it.

Is this something new or surprising? Not in the least bit. Did it catch you off guard? It shouldnt. This is all part of a cycle that transpires across the nation. This is why I didnt even bat an eye at the revelation of Levensons email. These thoughts and feelings have always existed, but with the introduction of email and social media, now they can be recorded and uncovered.

Based on Levensons theory, black fans are scaring away white fans, thus obstructing the stream of revenue that was pouring in. So the quality of the product on the court has nothing to do with the size of the audience in the stands?

Lets examine the 2014 Hawks team that finished with a record of 38-44, securing the 8th seed in the East, only to lose to Indiana in a hard fought first round playoff matchup. Their 16-man roster is comprised of two white players from the U.S., one from Macedonia, one from Switzerland (half Swiss, half South African) and two Latino players. The rest are black.

Does this mean that its time to market to white players, to draft white players? I remember when the Hawks, led by Dominique Wilkins, Doc Rivers, Kevin Willis, Tree Rollins and a host of other players used to do battle in the playoffs at the Omni and they seemed to have decent fan support. Yet now that they have a losing record, the team budget is in a state of disarray because of the black fans?  

1986 Atlanta Hawks Team Photo

Once again, black people are good enough to play, but not good enough to pay.

Some feel that this isnt racism but standard, yet insensitive, business practice. On the surface, that has some merit. Business 101 is to make money, thats no secret. But when the primary focus of why a business is failing resides solely on a specific group of color, one that makes up over 60% of your teams structure, I think its legitimate to deem it racist.

Some will prefer terms like racial insensitivity, disappointing behavior or inappropriate language, but it still sides more with racism.

This triggered memories of an experience at one of my former employers. My group presented the NBA as a new programming acquisition and sales opportunity to the entire sales team, only to be greeted by one VPs objection that they couldnt sell the NBA because it was made up of players with cornrows and tattoos.

Not that the teams werent that great, or that the marquee players like Jordan, Magic and Bird were retired; no, it was the physical appearance that would deter the sales team from generating revenue. A $2.4 billion acquisition deemed unsellable because of hairstyle and body art. But I suppose thats just another example of insensitive business commentary. Interesting how language and skin color never prevented the group from selling extreme sports, but I digress.

This is a primary example of how the true essence of sport has become tarnished by greed and profit. The days of pure competition are far gone, as evidenced by the recent dismantling of amateur, aka NCAA, athletics. Being able to prove your worth on the field is no longer the way athletes and teams are judged.

Now its about sexual preference and what your family background is like. Performance used to trump everything, including skin color. Jackie Robinson and Sam The Bam Cunningham; put them on the field and they changed the thought process and perspective of the nation in regards to race. Give Doug Williams the start and let Jeremy Wariner run the 400m and stereotypes are broken on the worlds biggest stages.

So now that we have another example of the equalizer being denied access to the boardroom, whats next? Additionally, what does this say about former NBA Commissioner David Stern? Team owners flourished under his watch and now it seems that the ethics-cleansing of the league at the executive level is emerging.

While some might think that Sterling and Levenson are isolated cases, many of us know better. We recognize the marketing strategies that are implemented to appeal to certain markets. We know who gets the front court seats and preferred seating in the arenas. And yes, these are more a function of affluence and connections as opposed to skin color, but I remember the 80s when the Knicks were horrible and those crowds werent in the Garden.

The same crowds that “scared away” Levensons desired white audience would frequent MSG, paying to get in and being told to move down to the lower level so that the stands would appear full for the cameras. But once the on-court product improved, those crowds were pushed up and eventually out, and in their place came new seating and new audiences. Ironic that the quality of the product dictated the success of the franchise? I think not.

Levenson issued a letter of apology and intent to sell his stake in the team on Sunday. The PR statements have started appearing, civil rights groups will begin holding press conferences, teams will call for healing, a symbolic moment will be held at the first Hawks home game with Commissioner Silver in attendance and if the team starts winning again, everyone will forget the whole thing.

Oh, and dont forget about the ticket blitz that will be targeted to all fans, advertising cost-effective packages (outside of games featuring LeBron and the Cavs) and fan-friendly events for the entire family. Note to the Hawks: black fans, and white alike, enjoy quality. So if you start winning, youll still have black fans willing to pay for tickets to see a winning team. In addition, you are the basketball team in Atlanta, a MAJOR black market, one made up by many transplanted New Yorkers, so who do you think would be attending, especially when the Knicks come to town?

I am not calling Levenson a racist, although he might have some racist tendencies. Sometimes feelings and perceptions are set in stone due to age and upbringing and they cant be changed. Black people generally accept the fact that older white people are fixed in their ways when it comes to race. Were we really surprised by Paula Dean revealing that she had used the n word in the past? I know I wasnt.

We have to address this situation because it has to be discussed. Yet my purpose in discussing this is to reveal the reality that isms exist FOR every group and IN every group, and while they wont be eliminated, they must be addressed both proactively and reactively.

Sports have changed rapidly and dramatically in recent years, and while the equalizer of competition still exists on the field, it still has not gained admittance to the boardroom. If you believe that it has, I invite you to believe that Barry Levenson will not profit from the impending sale of his share of the team and that he has no other motive in snitching on himself other than to clear his conscience.

Sports are big business for all parties involved, detracting from the fun and competition that serves as the foundation for all games. Barriers to entry on the field have been trumped by skill and talent except in the boardroom, where racially insensitive practices and a lack of common sense prevails.

Yet no matter the level of advancement, color seems to be irrelevant until black begins to overshadow green.   

And I thought being in the black was a good thing.

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