News, Sports

How Atlanta Hawks’ Playoff Success Is Bolstering The Team’s Brand – Locally And Nationally

A Hawks fan wearing a Trae Young jersey walks outside State Farm Arena prior to the team's playoff game against New York on May 28.
A Hawks fan wearing a Trae Young jersey walks outside State Farm Arena prior to the team's playoff game against New York on May 28.
Credit Emil Moffatt / WABE

It’s been four long years since the Atlanta Hawks last appeared in the playoffs.

Atlanta Hawks CEO Steve Koonin says during that time, the team has been “out of sight, out of mind” for a lot of basketball fans.

But, he says, that’s all changed over the past two weeks.

“Playing the Knicks and being the featured national TV game on TNT, ESPN and ABC was rocket fuel for us,” said Koonin.

Now having disposed of the New York Knicks in five games, the Hawks are moving on to the next round, thanks in large part to the team’s 22-year-old superstar Trae Young.

Young averaged 29 points a game in the series against the Knicks, including a last-minute, game-winning shot in Game 1.

“I think we surprised a lot of people. I think we’ve delighted a lot of people, and I think we saw a superstar be born right in front of our very eyes in Trae Young,” said Koonin.

The Hawks’ success also represents a remarkable turnaround for a team that changed head coaches in early March. The first two games of the Eastern Conference semifinals against the Philadelphia 76ers will be on the road before Hawks fans get a chance to cheer on their team again next week in Games 3 and 4 at home.

‘Where The Moments Happen’

Following a regular season that saw crowd sizes at State Farm Arena limited because of the pandemic, the building has been filled to 100% capacity during the playoffs.

That meant the Hawks’ sales and marketing effort had to ramp up quickly from earlier this year, when some games were played in front of only a few hundred friends and family members.

“Marketing to fans was something that you did a light touch because you couldn’t satisfy demand,” said Koonin, referring to the regular season. “And now, we are working loudly in the community, trying to bring fans into the building to celebrate what’s going on and hopefully continue with this dream.”

Playing the Knicks and being the featured national TV game on TNT, ESPN and ABC was rocket fuel for us.”

— Hawks CEO Steve Koonin

Longer term, the Hawks’ postseason success could be a boon for next year’s season tickets, sponsorships and team merchandise.

“The playoffs are where the moments happen,” said Mike Lewis who teaches sports marketing at Emory University’s Goizueta Business School. “And moments are really what makes sports. It’s the shared moments that create, you know, frankly, the legends and the stories that fan bases have.”

Atlanta Hawks CEO Steve Koonin says it was “surreal” seeing State Farm Arena filled to capacity for playoff games last week. (Emil Moffatt/WABE)
Atlanta Hawks CEO Steve Koonin says it was “surreal” seeing State Farm Arena filled to capacity for playoff games last week. (Emil Moffatt/WABE)

Lewis likens the Hawks’ current rise to Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls of the late ’80s early ’90s, prior to the team’s epic run of NBA titles.

“Jordan’s exploits in the playoffs are something that everyone in Chicago knows,” said Lewis. “In Atlanta, in 2021, Trae Young’s exploits are what everyone in Atlanta knows.”

He says now the Hawks have to capitalize on their current popularity.

“The question is, ‘Is this sustainable? Is this going to stick around for the long term?’” said Lewis. “But in the near term, this equates to excitement.”