The Atlanta Hawks want to be your friend. Not just any friend either, but one of your best friends. That friend your mom likes having around, who actually likes hanging out with your little sister. That friend who was “the man” in high school, but never let it go to his head. The popular friend who can dress his a** off, seems to know everybody, and is a ball to hang out with on the weekends. The idea of the #1 team in the Eastern Conference seeking to be “friends” with its fans is a different, but valuable approach for The Atlanta Hawks, because they have had a bit of perception problem even in their own hometown.
I asked a roomful of young people about what they thought about The Hawks and some of the responses included, “losing,” and “no stars.” Not a good look for a hometown team with the best record in the East.
There was also The Email.
Last September, in the wake of Donald Sterling, majority owner Bruce Levenson self-disclosed an email where he stated a bunch of outdated, stereotypical, if not flat-out racist garbage about Atlanta Hawks fans like, “I have told them I want some white cheerleaders and while i don't care what the color of the artist is, i want the music to be music familiar to a 40 year old white guy if that's our season tixs demo. i have also balked when every fan picked out of crowd to shoot shots in some time out contest is black. I have even bitched that the kiss cam is too black.”
So, therein lies the challenge.
The Atlanta Hawks are a winning team for whom past losses are ingrained in the childhood memories of their fans, and a PR crisis in the form of a potentially racist (soon to be former) owner. However, everyone knows that in crisis there is opportunity, and according to Hawks’ Chief Creative Officer and SVP of Marketing, Peter Sorckoff, “Now is a great time to be a Hawks fan.”
The fact that they are winning is the most obvious reason why. According to Complex, The Hawks are “reinventing” basketball as “a team without superstar salaries also means that there are no superstar personalities walking around.” Without one or two standout personalities, The Hawks play full-team basketball focused on “teamwork, sacrifice, cohesiveness, and more teamwork.”
The formula is not too far off from the Atlanta hip-hop formula where a city with tons of popular and talented rappers, ATL rap is still a team sport. It is a city where T.I., Jeezy, 2 Chainz and more don’t just coexist, they thrive…together. And The Hawks are tapping into one of the most powerful assets of their city, its hip-hop royalty. The combination of hip-hop and sports is one that makes sense for The Atlanta Hawks according to 2 Chainz, “Music and sports they definitely cross paths. We definitely inspire each other. I can name a thousand rappers that wanna play ball, and I can name two thousand ball players that wanna rap. I can show you the text messages too, cuz they want verses from me.”
The Atlanta Hawks, particularly Peter Sorckoff, recognized the value of Atlanta’s hip-hop community and opened this season with a three-part concert from T.I. “Tip agreed to come and do a performance for us—and the response was phenomenal.” Instead of just a post-game show, The Hawks had T.I. do a few songs pre-game, and then help out with player introductions. The Grand Hustle rapper then did a half-time and a post-game show. The whole event was also comingled with a fashion component and a Hawks/Grand Hustle t-shirt that sold out.
On March 27th, The Hawks did it all again this time with 2 Chainz. The hip-hop tie-in was even more successful. 2 Chainz was “CEO for the Day,” where he hung out with Hawks senior management. The event perfectly co-branded the Hawks slogan, “True to Atlanta,” by changing it to “TRU 2 Atlanta” for the day. 2 Chainz also held a press conference where he talked basketball, making playoff predictions, “The style of play that the Atlanta Hawks has, I definitely see them going a long way in the playoffs. I could see them playing against LeBron and them at the end. We have a great coach, great defense, the fans are showing up. I feel comfortable and I feel confident. There’s no time like now.”
At 6’5”, 2 Chainz played guard for Alabama State University and his skills were showcased during his event at Phillips Arena. He came within inches of hitting a half-court shot, and beat Hawks legend, Dominique Wilkins in a game of horse. The performances were a crowd-pleaser complete with amazing graphics projected onto the floor, and 2 Chainz performing clean versions of all his hits live on Fox Sports broadcasting into millions of homes. The entire event was exciting, irreverent, and fun which is exactly what The Atlanta Hawks were looking for.
“We take basketball very seriously, but don’t really have to take ourselves so seriously,” says Sorckoff, “We want to remember that people are coming to games because they want to have fun, they want to escape their life for three or four hours, and have a good time.” The formula is working, the Hawks have a strong Twitter presence where if you follow them, they will more than likely follow you back, their ticket sales are increasing, and their fans are more engaged.
And the T.I. and 2 Chainz events won’t be last time that hip-hop will take over Phillips Arena. Peter Sorckoff promises that he has a few more surprises in store, especially during the playoffs, and he also has a message for those who criticize adding so much hip-hop to Hawks games. “I think that people that vilify hip-hop haven’t really taken the time to understand it. It’s kind of like judging a book by its cover. To me, hip-hop is very mainstream. It’s not this sort of counter-culture thing that’s running off to the sidelines, and it’s not going away.”