Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Darktown Comes to Atlanta

For a month, Memphis sporting fans had been hyped about the upcoming fight between the great black fighters Sam Langford and the former Welterweight Champion the “Dixie Kid.” A local newspaper paper mockingly noted blacks had “been saving for days and days trying to rake together $2 admission to see [Jack] Johnson’s only rival in his race,” and “every smoke in town” bought a ticket. With black fans buying a good portion of the seats, the Langford-Dixie Kid fight was the most successful battle in Memphis history. But a week later, racial complaints resurfaced about boxing in Memphis. White fans had been complaining for the last 8 months about the lack of good white fighters. A local sportswriter commented that the “Phoenix Athletic club ought to have found out by this time that negroes will not turn out unless there is a strong negro attraction… More white bouts on such occasions would make a hit with the fight crowd.” In other words, the club needed to focus on white spectators and host white fights. But, this was easier said than done. Black athletes represented the best product and the most lucrative paydays for the club. As one writer observed, “the biggest houses at the Phoenix have been drawn by negro fights—and the patronage was always about three whites to one coon [black.]” “White bouts,” on the other hand, did not draw “overly well.” Much like the Atlanta Hawks’ owner Bruce Levenson, the Phoenix Athletic Club [Memphis] had business problems revolving around race and fandom. How do you attract white spectators? And what do you do with black fans? But this was 1910, not 2012.

Selling sports tickets has always been about white spectatorship. Black fandom, however, has been an afterthought. Before the mass integration of team sports, most black spectators attended horse races and prizefights. In white sports entertainment spaces, however, whites treated black fans like pathogens and not participants in the spectatorship process. Whites openly complained about the proximity of black fans and detested their presence. Black fans in the stands reminded whites of social equality that whites did not want to accept. To deal with the problem of black fandom, while also appeasing white fans and keeping black dollars, stadiums, clubs, and arenas segregated blacks. Newspapers commonly mocked the black section by referring to them as “smokes” and “darktown.” But, as long as black spectatorship remained relatively small, whites could deal with the supposed black problem.

In post WWII America, however, the Second Great Migration and the integration of team sports resulted in the first mass wave of black spectators in white sporting spaces. Black fans flocked to major league ballparks to see their black stars in action. After the Brooklyn Dodgers signed Jackie Robinson the team sold out most of their home and road games. Based on rumor alone, black fans in Detroit bought 40,000 tickets to see Satchel Paige pitch for the Cleveland Indians. While some teams like the Indians signed black players to tap into a black fan base, many franchises like Detroit refused to acknowledge their presence. Reportedly, the increase in black fans pushed Brooklyn to move to Los Angeles. The Atlanta Braves, for example, have continued to avoid recruiting black fans. The situation got so bad that in 2000 Braves icon Hank Aaron, complained “[Blacks] aren't wanted on the field and they're not wanted in the stands, and that's the gospel truth." Unfortunately, it seems that the Atlanta Hawks are following the Braves.

The most ironic aspect about the Hawks’ black problem is that the Hawks once openly recruited black fans. During the 1971 season blacks comprised 8% of the fans and only bought 9 season tickets in Atlanta. In comparison the Baltimore Bullets (32%) and the Detroit Pistons (30%) had the highest black attendance. In 1972, the Hawks GM Richie Guerin met with local black businessmen to develop a strategy to attract black spectators and season ticket holders. Guerin told the group “ We really need your help because the whole league has been lax in the area.” He continued, saying “But I’m more interesting in Atlanta than in the rest of the league.” To woo a black fan base, the Hawks leadership decided to use black business leaders to recruit other black middle-class customers. Forty years later, we see that the Hawks’ strategy worked and black spectatorship grew to 70%. So what did the Atlanta Hawk do about their success?

Although their problems were 100 years apart, the Phoenix Athletic Club and Levenson arrived at the same answer. They cowardly capitulated to their white fans. In Memphis, in 1910, the club “comprising bankers, millionaires and others,” had “gradually placed more white and less black in the color scheme for the preliminary sport.” In short, the Phoenix Athletic Club stopped featuring black fighters as headliners and actively sought out white talent. But the Hawks can’t replace their black product with white talent. It doesn’t work like that in the NBA. Instead of courting black dollars, Levenson fell back on an old trope that that situated black spectators as bad for business. He wrote “My theory is that the black crowd scared away the whites and there are simply not enough affluent black fans to build a significant[sic] season ticket base. Please dont 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.” To draw more whites fans, he proposed more white cheerleaders, less black people on the kissing cam, and changing the music to appeal to white audiences. The tactics might have changed, but the goal remained the same. The black fan base was reduced to roughly 40%, still too high for Levenson. But the Hawks and other teams need to know, black spectators will support a quality product. Franchises should follow the 1972 Hawks and actively recruit black fans.

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