When Atlanta Falcons owner Arthur Blank formally unveiled the city’s Major League Soccer’s expansion franchise during a public celebration Wednesday, one couldn’t help but notice how hands on Blank was in landing the new team.
Set to begin play in 2017 in the Atlanta Falcons’ new stadium, the yet-to-be-named MLS franchise was Blank’s baby from the start. This wasn’t just some sort of business proposition for him. He wanted this team. And with a new stadium in place, he made getting the deal done personal.
If only a certain former Atlanta hockey team had passionate, hands-on ownership like Arthur Blank. Then maybe the NHL would still have a franchise within driving distance of Middle Georgia.
The final years of the Atlanta Thrashers’ existence was a mess. Originally part of the Ted Turner sports portfolio carried on by Time Warner, the Thrashers and the Atlanta Hawks were sold off to a group of investors known as Atlanta Spirit, LLC, in 2003. But the investors that made up Atlanta Spirit often haven’t been on the same page, especially when it came to the Thrashers. The lack of focus by ownership led to just one playoff appearance prior to the team’s sale and move to Winnipeg in 2011.
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To a lesser extent, the Hawks have suffered from the same lack of focus. Sure, they have consistently reached the playoffs -- the Hawks have the longest playoff streak in the Eastern Conference at seven seasons, one longer than Miami’s and Chicago’s six -- but they have not reached the conference finals since the NBA established the Eastern and Western conferences for the 1970-71 season. And, despite the team’s “Highlight Factory” marketing strategy, fans haven’t exactly latched onto what the Hawks have done in recent years. The Hawks finished the regular season 28th in attendance at 14,339 per game, roughly 1,000 fans below Charlotte, the next lowest playoff-bound team.
A big step to correct the ownership group’s focus issues looks to have been taken earlier this week. Steve Koonin, a former Coca-Cola executive and longtime president of Turner Entertainment Networks, was brought aboard as part-owner and CEO. Or, to put it another way, he was brought aboard to be the face of ownership, something the Hawks franchise sorely lacked.
What can Koonin do to drive interest?
By Atlanta, for Atlanta: Koonin is a native of Atlanta. He’s not one of those fly-by-night people just taking advantage of a business opportunity. People need to see him in the front row at Philips Arena, much like Larry H. Miller was with the Utah Jazz in the 1990s. He doesn’t need to be as vocal as, say, Dallas’ Mark Cuban, but he needs to become instantly recognizable. If people see an Atlanta face as the face of the franchise, then they will be more inclined to make an emotional investment in the Hawks.
Remain patient: When Danny Ferry was brought aboard as general manager in 2012, he pretty much cleaned house. He brought in a new head coach in Mike Budenholzer and has cut losses with some ill-advised deals crafted by former management. Of the six players averaging 10 or more points this season, only one -- Kyle Korver -- is older than 30. While the Hawks barely kept their playoff streak alive by snagging the No. 8 spot, this isn’t a team that needs a total reset. Sure, some dealing still needs to be done, but Koonin needs to trust Ferry.
Embrace the state: Most of the Hawks’ marketing efforts in recent years have focused on the Atlanta metro area. Sure, that’s where most of the tickets are going to be sold, but focusing inside the perimeter and the suburbs near the perimeter reduces the franchise’s ability to be a regional draw. Establishing a marketing presence in cities within driving distance, such as Macon, Columbus, Athens and Augusta, will make the franchise look much more attractive to fans. Here in Macon, a good start would be to pick up a local radio affiliate.
As much drama as the Hawks’ ownership has gone through in recent years, the addition of Koonin could very well be the best thing that has happened to the franchise in a long time. He certainly will have a lot on his plate.
Contact Ron Seibel at 744-4222 or firstname.lastname@example.org.