Friday, December 01, 2006

An Unfortunate Setback for the "Atlanta is the Worst Sports Town EVER!!!" Meme

Kudos to Tim Tucker for going beyond the empty seats at Philips Arena to make the observation that Atlanta is a terrific market for the NBA. Long story short, the Hawks don't draw very well because: (1) they have been rebuilding for seven years and; (2) their last competitive iteration - the Dikembe Mutombo/Steve Smith/Mookie Blaylock/Stacey Augmon team - was not very entertaining to watch and didn't have a prayer of getting past the Bulls to win the Eastern Conference. Tucker makes the first point and I'm adding the second. The late 90s Hawks were a terrific defensive team, but watching their games was typically painful, even when they were winning.

The "which city is the best sports city?" debate tends to get extremely tiresome and it typically can't be resolved without huge subjective statements, but what irks me the most is that the national conversation is driven by the Northeastern media and they have a myopic, limited notion as to what a sports town should be, i.e. professional team sports-dominated with everyone in the city uniformly cheering for the home teams. It doesn't occur to them, for example, that some markets might prefer college football or basketball to Major League Baseball, the NFL, or the NBA. It doesn't occur to them that migration patterns in the U.S. are such that the Southern metropolises are full of transplants from the Northeast and Midwest and therefore, there are tons of active sports fans in those cities who don't necessarily cheer for the home teams as their first choices. Finally, it doesn't occur to them that a city like Atlanta, unlike Boston or Philadelphia, has a large black middle class and the crowds at Falcons games looks a lot more like the players playing than the crowds at Patriots or Eagles fans.

A model of diversity.

When our superstar gives the bird to his fans, at least there's a common bond between them through the insults flying back and forth. Yay Atlanta! the City to Busy to Hate!

(This point is a little tangential to the question of whether Atlanta is or isn't a great sports city, but personally, I like the notion that Atlanta does not have a serious racial disconnect between the players and fans, i.e. black players and white fans. This argument can be turned around on the Braves, who have a white fan base and a white/Latino team, but just about every team in baseball has a similar problem, save for the Yankees, Mets, Dodgers, and Angels, based on my extremely unscientific assessments of baseball crowds on TV. This point can also rebound against UGA football, the marquee attraction in the Atlanta sports market, because the crowds at Georgia games tend to be white and Republican, unlike the players on the field.)

To get back off my attempt to be Harry Edwards, what I like so much about this city as a college football market is that it's a giant melting pot. College football is the dominant sport in the market and the market is full of fans from a number of SEC and ACC schools, as well as a ton of transplants from Ohio, Michigan, and Pennsylvania that brought their allegiences with them when they followed their jobs and non-crappy weather south. I never thought about this until reading Tucker's article, but the NBA market is similar here. Support for the Hawks is not great and we're all waiting to find out whether the market will fall in love with a Hawks team that doesn't suck or bore. (The experience in the 80s when the Hawks were the in-team in the market indicates that the answer is "yes.") However, support for the NBA in general and for the marquee teams in the league is significant. As a result, you get a melting pot where local callers on the Two Live Stews are as likely to want to talk about the Lakers or Dwayne Wade as they are about the local basketball collective. I would love to pick David Stern's brain about this market, since he's an extremely sharp commissioner with detailed knowledge about all aspects of the NBA's operation. I wonder if he feels that it's less of an imperative to bolster support for the Hawks because Atlantans will watch the NBA regardless?


Fox said...

Isn't the question of whether a city is a good sports market another way of asking whether it would be financially viable to put a team or teams there? You know, will they go to games, supports new stadium, etc. Whether people like sports in a town and watch other cities' teams on TV doesn't seem like a mark in Atlanta's favor.

No one is saying that people in Atlanta hate sports or don't follow other teams. But the factors you mention--lots of transients with little allegiance to the local pro teams, lots of people who care more about whether Florida beats Arkansas then whether the Hawks or Falcons have a game this weekend--suggest that Atlanta fails this test. To use your Stern analogy, wouldn't this mean that Stern would care less whether they even have a team there--if people are going to follow the Cavs or Lakers or some other team anyway, why not send the Hawks to a city that would support them and let Atlantans watch the NBA on TV as they do now?

If, on the other hand, you're saying that Atlantans love the NBA and would embrace the Hawks as soon as they stop sucking or at least start playing attractive basketball, well, I think the large number of transients hurts your argument. However, I love your points about the racial composition of the city, and if they embraced the Hawks in the way they have bought into the falcons since Vick got there, that, in my view, would make Atlanta a worthy sports town.

Michael said...

I think that the definition of a sports town is whether its citizens are interested in sports, either on TV or in person. It should be a place where you can go to a sports bar and see some excitement. Financial viability is a bad way to measure a sports town because that will always favor cities with more people and money. For instance, everyone thinks that St. Louis is a great sports town, but no one wants to put more franchises there. Conversely, LA would be a good place to put additional teams because of the population size, but that doesn't mean that it's a great sports town.

I'm really tickled by the idea of this city rallying behind the Hawks when they get good. If there's one thing Black Hollywood has been missing, it's a good NBA team.

paulwesterdawg said...

I was a *hard core* NBA fan in the late 80s and very early 90s. I could've named 200 players on NBA rosters. A total freak for it. The Hawks had a solid team, and it was a great product to watch.

Then they traded Nique in '94.

I would argue that they have been rebuilding from that debacle for 12 years. Not 7. I still don't think they recovered from Pete Babcock's mismanagement.

Over those 12 years, I discovered that I don't need the NBA. I don't need the Hawks, and I frankly don't care if they *ever* turn it around.

Atlanta is a great sports town. When we have a compelling product, we generally watch it.

The Braves situation is the only exception, and I'd argue that going 10+ years without more than 1 or 2 regular season pennant races combined with the continual playoff collapses just exhausted the fan base.

Anyway - I think Atlanta COULD be a great NBA town. But it's going to take meaningful, sustained success to turn around the battleship of negativity. And when it turns around, I won't be in that group. They waited too long to fix it for me.


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