Is Atlanta ready to forgive the Hawks?
Still mad at the Hawks?
It’s been almost three months since the team out-ed its majority owner and general manager for making separate racist statements, igniting an offseason firestorm that left the future of the franchise in question. But since then, the Falcons have flaked, both UGA and Tech have squandered playoff opportunities, and the Braves have made moves (J-Hey!? No!!) obviously geared more toward their future in Cobb. Atlanta sports fans are desperate for a winner.
How about a return to Philips Arena?
Making good on the promise they flashed against the Pacers in last year’s postseason, the Hawks have started hot, tied for the second-best record (13-6) in the Eastern Conference, sitting alongside Washington atop the Southeast Division, and currently riding a six-winning streak—their longest since 2012. Point guard Jeff Teague and forward Paul Millsap are playing like All-Stars, the latter leading the NBA in steals (a POWER FORWARD, FOR CHIRSSAKES!).
Thus far, the public appears to be receptive. After the first 10 homes games, attendance was up from last year by more than 1,800 fans per game. Television viewership on SportSouth is up by almost 20 percent. And team merchandise is flying off the shelves, with the team store at Philips seeing sales up 65 percent and online sales up nearly 59 percent.
Hawks CEO Steve Koonin—who in his first full year with the team has been suddenly tasked with rehabbing its image—points to the return of the old “Pac Man” logo with fueling merch sales and a renewed emphasis on overall experience, including an Opening Night performance by T.I. and a dazzling new 3D player intro for helping attendance. Koonin also credits the early on-court success and new coach Mike Budenholzer’s fast-paced, ball-moving style of play. But Koonin isn’t getting cocky. “While we are encouraged by the support we are seeing from the community, we are not taking it for granted,” he told us in an email. “We have taken positive steps toward fulfilling some of the promises that we made to reengage the city of Atlanta, including announcing our new Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer very soon. We are humbled by the support, but know we have to continue to earn it.”
At the moment, it isn’t so hard to imagine a sustained playoff run and, dare we say, an Eastern Conference Finals appearance thawing the Hawks-fans relationship this spring.