As a pseudo-transplant to the Atlanta area, I have an outside interest in the Atlanta Hawks. The Atlanta NBA franchise is among the best teams in the Eastern Conference thus far this season, but it faces the same problem it has seen for decades now: apathy from its hometown fanbase. The team is trying to resell the Hawks as a franchise for the city, as Kevin Arnovitz of ESPN points out, and its efforts have had to be creative.
The Hawks are facing problems that are unique in the NBA world. The franchise has long suffered a distinct apathy from its fans despite being a generally competitive franchise for a long period of time. The Hawks made the playoffs each season from 1992-93 to 1998-99, then again from 2007-08 to last season, and they are poised to make the postseason again. The fanbase just has not shown any interest, and reasons stem from a transplant fanbase that has its own allegiances to the racially-charged previous ownership that recently agreed to sell the team.
And the problem of the Hawks' ownership can't be understated, a group that's been consumed by in-fighting, lawsuits, messy buyouts and, more recently, inflammatory racial comments made by co-owner Bruce Levenson and general manager Danny Ferry.
When [Hawks CEO Steve Koonin] -- then only months into the job -- first read owner Bruce Levenson's now infamous email urging the team to be more welcoming to stereotypical white fans, he found the owner's take personally reprehensible.
If you take away the racial overtones that clearly make Atlanta and the Hawks unique, you can see similarities to the problems the Miami Marlins face. The Fish have not been as competitive as the Hawks, but they too suffer from a transplant fanbase that fills up their park for the New York Mets games but in opposite colors. You can see the issues the fanbase has with its ownership, as the tenuous relationship with owner Jeffrey Loria continues. And you can see the issues the franchise has had with attracting or keeping stars on its roster, as the Marlins have only once had the money to bring in major reinforcements in the past.
The two situations share similarities, so it would be interesting to see if the Marlins could take any cues from what the Hawks are now trying to do to market the franchise. In the Arnovitz article, he highlights the Hawks' fundamental switch from targeting an affluent northern suburban audience to focusing on the people of the city, mostly African-Americans.
"We call this the Alpharetta Unicorn," said Koonin. "This is the 55-year-old guy who's going to drive an hour from Alpharetta into the city with three buddies to go to the Hawks game. He doesn't exist. And there is no music, no kiss cam, no cheerleaders, no shooting for a free car, no bobbleheads ... nothing is going to change that."
"Our bull's-eye is Atlanta proper -- African-Americans and millennials," Koonin said. "There are 2 million millennials in the area. Our other audience is African-Americans, which are 59 percent of the city of Atlanta."
Have the Marlins focused on the right population? Absolutely! Much like what Koonin is suggesting for the Hawks, the Fish have firmly planted themselves in the middle of the big city and attempted to appeal to a core audience member in Miami: the Latin-American population. In the stadium build, the Marlins chose Little Havana and the site of the old Orange Bowl as a cultural center-point. They refocused their energies away from Broward and Palm Beach Counties and tried to root themselves in Miami-Dade.
The Fish wanted to appeal to the Latin-American population, and particularly the Cuban population, in their move as well. The Taste of Miami local foods area is a great example of appealing to the local populace rather than going for broad appeal. The team has always attracted Latin-American acts for their concert series, and the inaugural representative of these concert attempts was Mr. 305 himself, Pitbull. The Marlins have set the bulls-eye squarely on the surrounding Hispanic population, much like the Hawks have targeted the younger and African-American groups of Atlanta.
One of the things that was pointed out in the article is that the Hawks found that their target audience wanted to use games as a social event rather than just one to enjoy a sporting competition.
Miami is well-known for being a fanbase interested in social gatherings rather than hardcore sports entertainment, and the Marlins knew that well before they built Marlins Park. The Fish did everything they could to turn Marlins games into social events and "must-have" tickets. They desired what the Miami Heat have, which is the ability to draw big crowds and even bigger celebrity names courtside to take in contests and subtly advertise the Marlins name. To that end, there is not an inch of Marlins Park that does not scream "entertainment." From the fish tanks behind home plate to the Budweiser BowTie Bar to the nightclub-in-the-park Clevelander, the ownership group clearly wanted Marlins games to be events for young people to mingle.
To some degree, it worked. Last season, Giancarlo Stanton hit a home run near the BowTie Bar and a young lady was casually having a conversation with her friend over a drink before it was pointed out that the ball was coming her way. She did get the ball after a few bounces, but after Craig Minervini came by to interview, it was clear she had no idea what was going on in the game or with the Marlins in general. It is likely she came to the game with her friends to get some drinks, head out to the Clevelander and do some dancing, and go home. For the Marlins, they will take that any day of the week.
But ultimately, just how much can making a sporting event more "event" than sport do to dent the attendance marks? The Hawks know ultimately that winning will trump all, and finding a star will play a huge role in that. In that respect, the Marlins are already ahead, as they retained their star Giancarlo Stanton to a long-term deal that should keep him in orange and teal and black for some time. But the winning ways need to follow. The Fish have done all the marketing that they could do to sell the games as worth attending. Assembling a winning product may very well be just the last step.