SBJ/March 19-25, 2012/Opinion

Team’s new reality: Being the messenger

Michael Wilbon, the longtime, award-winning columnist for The Washington Post and now with ESPN, was recently lamenting to me how shocked he was when he came to Atlanta for the 2011 second-round playoff series between the Chicago Bulls and the Hawks and picked up the local paper. How could a market about the same size as Washington, D.C., have such a thin sports section devoid of quality content and commentary?

To see what Wilbon means, pick any day, and compare The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and The Washington Post sports sections: one still rich in content and columnists, the other looking like an overachiever in a 30-day weight-loss program.

While the Post’s circulation has dipped (along with virtually every other daily newspaper), the once-venerable Journal-Constitution’s circulation has plummeted, despite population growth in Atlanta. The AJC ranked 19th in circulation among America’s newspapers in 2008, according to the Audit Bureau of Circulations. Four years later, it’s 38th, with less than 160,000 daily readers (and falling fast) compared with the Post’s 551,000 daily readers. (The Post climbed to sixth from seventh during the same period). In those same four years, the Atlanta market has grown by 500,000, to more than 5.7 million people.

Since 2008, the best sports reporters and columnists at the AJC have fled — and not just to the dot-coms, but to fine print publications. They’ve been replaced at the AJC by lower-cost reporters, wire service reports or not at all. The reporters are gone. The columnists are gone. And worst of all, the readers are gone.

The Post, meanwhile, continues to invest in its sports section, replacing Wilbon and others with distinguished journalists, and now counts nine columnists among its sports staff, the most it has ever had.

Doesn’t investing in quality sports content pay off in Atlanta? You bet. Case in point is the Hawks, the NBA team of which I am an owner.

In the same four years, the Hawks have reinvented themselves, investing in quality content by adding free agents, keeping core players, changing management and coaches, and improving facilities. Last year, player payroll was seventh in the NBA — and the money was spent wisely. Over the period, the Hawks rank in the top quartile in terms of games won per dollar spent on payroll.

The Hawks’ investments are paying off with ticket revenue more than doubling (and up an additional 24 percent a game this year despite the lockout-shortened season), local TV ratings quadrupling and the team making four straight playoff appearances, including a raucous seven-game series with the team that went on to win the championship in 2008 (Boston), and a tantalizing six-game series last season with a team that had the league’s best record and its MVP.

In 2011, the Hawks were one of three teams, along with the Celtics and Los Angeles Lakers, to make the second round of the playoffs three straight years. The results on the court and at the box office are proof Atlanta is not a bad sports town.

For the owner of a local sports team, there looms an ominous challenge. How do I reach my fans?

We have pivoted to other media to get out our message. We invested heavily in our website, significantly beefing up the quantity and quality of news and videos on the site. We are buying quality content from freelance sportswriters and broadcasters to deliver exclusive sports news and interviews. It’s paying off. We are tracking to exceed 400,000 video views on the site this season, up 50 percent from last year. And we’ve built an opt-in database of more than 500,000.
Our media spend with Facebook, LinkedIn, Atlanta Business Chronicle and billboards far exceeds our now-modest AJC spend.

We’ve created a “Tweet Suite,” inviting influential Atlantans and their guests to key games and having them tweet during the game.

We’ve taken over toll plazas during rush hours, providing free tolls and ticket offers to commuters.

I don’t profess to fully appreciate the challenges facing the AJC, but whatever they are doing to address those challenges isn’t working.

Atlanta teams are desperate for the kind of quality reporting and commentary accorded their brethren in other markets. Wilbon says ESPN is looking at Atlanta for the launch of another of its local editions. I hope they will run through that door because it is wide open.

Bruce Levenson (Bruce.Levenson@hawks.com) is co-owner of the Atlanta Hawks.

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