Racist Email Brings Down Atlanta Hawks Owner, Will Sell Stake In Team

Bruce Levenson, owner of the Atlanta Hawks NBA franchise, has announced that he will be selling his controlling interest in the team following the revelation of a racist email that he sent regarding Hawks fans in 2012. The person who revealed the email: Levenson himself.

CBS Sports reported on Sunday morning that Levenson notified the league of his intention to sell his share of the Hawks, and NBA commissioner Adam Silver released a statement calling the Hawks owner’s comments “entirely unacceptable [and in] stark contrast to the core principles of the National Basketball Association.”

“[Levenson] shared with me how truly remorseful he is for using those hurtful words and how apologetic he is to the entire NBA family,” Silver continued.

The Hawks owner’s offensive comments reportedly came in the context of an email aimed at growing the Hawks’ fanbase to include more lucrative demographics, specifically white males aged 35 to 55. ESPN sports business reporter Darren Rovell secured excerpts of Levenson’s email, and the Hawks owner points out that that particular demographic is usually “the primary demo for season tickets around the league.”

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Atlanta as a city is roughly 54 percent African American, and a cursory glance at the stadium attendance for Hawks games has an even higher percentage of African American attendants. Levenson pointed this out in his email, but did so in a manner that seemed to convey disappointment at the Hawks’ black support levels.

Levenson intimated that he believed affluent, white fans were “scared away” by the Hawks’ African American fans. More, he said that “there are simply not enough affluent black fans to build a significant season ticket base.”

He went on to say, “Please don’t get me wrong. There was nothing threatening going on in the arean [sic] back then. I never felt uncomfortable, but I think southern whites simply were not comfortable being in an arena or at a bar where they were in the minority.”

“I want the music [played at Hawks games] to be music familiar to a 40 year old white guy,” the Hawks owner wrote, “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 b*****d that the kiss cam is too black.”

Among Levenson’s other observations:

  • The crowd is “70 pct 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.”

As Levenson departs the Hawks, team CEO Steve Koonin will oversee all operations and take organizational reports until the sale process is complete.

Levenson added, “I’m truly embarrassed by my words in that e-mail, and I apologize to the members of the Hawks family and all of our fans.

“To the Hawks family and its fans, you have my deepest gratitude for the past 10 years… I am proud of our diverse, passionate, and growing legion of Hawks fans, and I will continue to join you in cheering for the best team in the NBA.”

Hawks CEO Steve Koonin, in a statement, called Levenson’s comments “alarming, offensive and most of all, completely unacceptable.”

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Levenson’s departure marks the second major incident involving NBA team ownership and racist comments in less than a year. Previously, former Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling sparked a massive controversy after audio recordings emerged of him appearing to discourage his girlfriend from being seen with African American men. The revelation of Sterling’s comments drew outrage within and around the league, with some players threatening to sit out games unless the league pushed Sterling out.

Commissioner Silver acted quickly in that incident, banning Sterling for life from NBA functions and initiating procedures to force a sale of the team. Eventually, former Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer stepped forward to buy the team for $2 billion, but the deal was only completed after months of legal challenges from Sterling.

The list of prospective buyers for the Atlanta Hawks is as yet unknown, but the controversy will likely bring a surge of millionaires and billionaires interested in taking a stake in the NBA. Forbes Magazine currently values the Hawks at $425 million, 27th out of 30 NBA teams in terms of value. Forbes valued the Clippers, though, at just $575 million, even though that team sold for $2 billion.