The Bruce Levenson case: The color of skin vs. the skin in the game

Sam Smith – The difference between Donald Sterling and Bruce Levinson is the difference between racism and capitalism. Racism is about the color of your skin. Capitalism is about whether you have skin in the game.

Crude as it seems, on any given day there may be hundreds if not thousands of corporations, advertising agencies and marketing consultants looking at their businesses in much the same way Bruce Levenson analyzed the Atantla Hawks.

In such a world we are not members of an ethnic culture, a community to be respected, or individuals to be polite about. We are commodities of the particular variety known as a demographic or a “demo.”.

Here is from Levenson’s email:

Regarding game ops, i need to start with some background. for the first couple of years we owned the team, i didn’t much focus on game ops. then one day a light bulb went off. when digging into why our season ticket base is so small, i was told it is because we can’t get 35-55 white males and corporations to buy season tixs and they are the primary demo for season tickets around the league. when i pushed further, folks generally shrugged their shoulders. then i start looking around our arena during games and notice the following:

– it’s 70 pct black
– the cheerleaders are black
– the music is hip hop
– at the bars it’s 90 pct black
– there are few fathers and sons at the games
– we are doing after game concerts to attract more fans and the concerts are either hip hop or gospel.

Then i start looking around at other arenas. It is completely different. Even DC with its affluent black community never has more than 15 pct black audience.
Before we bought the hawks and for those couple years immediately after in an effort to make the arena look full (at the nba’s urging) thousands and thousands of tickets were being giving away, predominantly in the black community, adding to the overwhelming black audience.

My theory is that the black crowd scared away the whites and there are simply not enough affluent black fans to build a signficant season ticket base. Please dont get me wrong. There was nothing threatening going on in the arena 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. On fan sites i would read comments about how dangerous it is around philips yet in our 9 years, i don’t know of a mugging or even a pick pocket incident. This was just racist garbage. When I hear some people saying the arena is in the wrong place I think it is code for there are too many blacks at the games.

If anyone’s values or culture is being questioned in this, it is that of southern whites. Levenson is clearly happy to get money wherever he can, but he can’t find enough affluent blacks or “35-55 white males and corporations” buying season tickets who “are the primary demo for season tickets around the league.”

This is not about race; it’s about cash.

And there were a few things that went missing in the mainstream media coverage. One radio station reported, “Back in April, Levenson told an Atlanta radio station that he would support ousting then-Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling, who was recorded making racist statements to his girlfriend.’ He was the first team owner to call for Sterling’s resignation.  And, said another journal, “Levenson served as president of the “I Have a Dream Foundation,” which helps children from low-income situations pursue higher edcuation.”

Further, Levenson began his letter with some comments that didn’t get generally reported:

from day one i have been impressed with the friendliness and professionalism of the arena staff – food vendors, ushers, ticket takers, etc. in our early years when i would bring folks from dc they were blown away by the contrast between abe pollin’s arena and philips. some of this is attributable to southern hospital [sic] and manners but bob and his staff do a good job of training. To this day, I can not get the ushers to call me Bruce yet they insist on me calling them by their first names.

Clearly not your standard racist.

Dave Zirin in the Nation provides some of the back story:

Levenson writes nothing in the letter that has not been on the front burner for the last twenty-five years. In the late 1970s, as David Halberstam wrote in 1981 book The Breaks of the Game, the powers-that-be in the NBA thought the league was too thuggish, too urban and, in their minds, too black. The dream was to make the league palatable to a stereotypical, upscale suburban audience. New commissioner David Stern, with the help of three players named Magic, Bird and Jordan, did exactly that and sent the league into the global stratosphere. Starting in the post-Jordan late 1990s, this executive racial panic returned with a vengeance. Players were now “too gangsta”. Sportswriters were reaching for their monocles at the sight of these new ruffians. Now Stern was consulting Republican strategist Matthew Dowd on how to give the league “red state appeal.” Then the infamous player dress code was instituted. Allen Iverson’s tattoos were airbrushed off of his skin in a league magazine, and high school players were denied entry into the draft. In addition, the league made a big show of announcing new penalties for marijuana use. This reflected their fears that profit margins would shrink if they did not show upscale white fans who was in charge of this majority black league, all with an eye on the green.

There are, of course, far more important ethnic issues to worry about such as Ferguson or the fact that police injure blacks five times as often as whites. But just as in political coverage, where “optics”  often get more attention than reality, many feel far more comfortable talking about the proper language of ethnic relations rather than, say, the effects on blacks of discriminatory prosecution of a forty year drug war that the media and liberals have at best, gone along with, and at worst, fully supported.

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