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Atlanta Hawks CEO Steve Koonin on how COVID-19 is changing basketball

The NBA found unexpected ways to make fans feel like they were part of the team last season. Now some teams are going even further.

Atlanta Hawks CEO Steve Koonin on how COVID-19 is changing basketball
[Photo: Jason Merritt/WireImage via Getty Images; Andre Tan/Unsplash; rawpixel]
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For Fast Company’Shape of Tomorrow series, we’re asking business leaders to share their inside perspective on how the COVID-19 era is transforming their industries. Here’s what’s been lost—and what could be gained—in the new world order.

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The NBA was the first major North American sports league to suspend all operations due to the COVID-19 pandemic. After halting games on March 12th, the league restarted on July 30th at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex at Disney World in Florida. Inside the bubble, where players were tested daily and movements monitored, there were 22 teams—16 bound for the playoffs, and six more contenders—who played eight regular season games to determine the remaining playoff spots. The Atlanta Hawks weren’t selected for playoff contention, but with sports teams now a 365-day-a-year brand operation, their work was far from over. In fact, with their seasons ending months earlier than usual, it became even more challenging.

Atlanta Hawks CEO Steve Koonin talks to Fast Company about how fan engagement has changed during the COVID-19 era, and what the team is doing to adapt for the future.

Fast Company: The Hawks weren’t inside the NBA bubble, but you got to observe how the league and other teams operated within it. What have been some of the most significant lessons learned from the bubble so far? And are they informing your plans for the new season?

Steve Koonin: From a business side, we learned that there are unique opportunities. I don’t know how much you watched, but all of the floor signage was virtual, which gave the opportunity to feature different brands. Microsoft Teams [was] integrated into the TV broadcasts in order to put fans virtually in the stands, even though they were in their living rooms. It’s hard to look and see that we’re going to start next season with full stands. I think that’s a safe assumption. So how can you make up for some of the attendance gaps with advertising and marketing programs that utilize technology in and around the court? That’s going to be a big focus for our team and others.

One of the things the league and its broadcast partners did very well is hide Easter eggs in the broadcast, like Lil Wayne or team mascots, in the stands watching the game.

FC: As weird as it was at first, the NBA restart was a success in many ways, particularly in the quality of games and excitement among fans. What does the fact that the league fared so well without live audiences mean for the short-term future of live events and sports broadcasting?

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SK: Before I came to the Hawks, I ran the Turner Entertainment Network. What’s interesting now is, I think there were 28 remote cameras being used. And the key word there is “remote.” The court reel camera that runs the length of the court is very cool, but it would be difficult normally because one of the most unique elements of going to an NBA game is having your feet on the floor, so I don’t see some of these things being able to continue. But I do think different kinds of angles and access is something that will live on.  We need a next-generation broadcast, and in some ways—and I mean this with the highest compliment—the broadcast has to have a lot of video game elements, which attract younger audiences.

We haven’t even seen 20% of what technology can do yet. I want to be able to go down the court and look through LeBron’s eyes, which you can do with the Intel 360 cameras, and see the way he’s attacking the defense. These are the kinds of innovations that can come from this—hopefully—once in a lifetime situation.

FC: First the season was suspended, and then the Hawks weren’t in the restart bubble. How do you keep fans engaged anyway?

SK: A brand has many different facets and to it. During the season, wins and losses and scoring break-out players like Trae Young grab the headlines. But we’ve also taken a very aggressive stand in our community, which I think is a great opportunity. As soon as COVID hit, we came out very quickly on food insecurity. We partnered with a local company called Goodr. We had built 28 different Hawks courts [community basketball courts built or refurbished by the team] around the city, mainly in underserved areas. And we quickly pivoted from having courts be about basketball to being food distribution sites for families in need. We turned them into pop-up grocery stores. We served tens of thousands of families fresh produce, meats and other groceries, all over the city, to help fill the void of schools closing, and other challenges. Families had the food they needed.

We also noticed that healthcare workers were having a tough time taking care of us as a population while taking care of themselves and their families. We were also saddened to see that local restaurants were hit very hard. So we propped up a number of local restaurants, shifting them from restaurants to local commissary, if you will. We hired back hundreds of employees, and we prepared meals for every shift for doctors, nurses, pharmacists, technicians, and custodians, so when they got off their shift, they got two meals to take home. We took away that responsibility from people who were working 12 hour shifts and longer.We did that for months.

In early June, we were the first [to turn our arena] into a polling center, the largest in the state of Georgia. It’s about helping to make sure people had facilities that allowed them to vote, while staying socially distant.

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The point is, you have to have multiple dimensions. It can’t just be what you do on the court. It has to be what you’re doing in the community.

 


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About the author

Jeff Beer is a staff editor at Fast Company, covering advertising, marketing, and brand creativity. He lives in Toronto.

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