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Volume 20 No. 42
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The Sit-Down: Steve Koonin, CEO, Atlanta Hawks and Philips Arena

With experience in marketing at Coke and media at Turner, Koonin has seen sports from the outside. Now on the inside, he talks of building tomorrow’s arena and what he would change about the NBA.

As the generations change, and the older generation, my generation, becomes more of a passive consumer, and a younger millennial connected generation comes in, they are looking for more than just a seat, a hot dog and a beer.

When you do these buildings and you spend this kind of money, you’re projecting for the future. You’re making bets for the future.

We believe that [attention-deficit disorder] used to be a disease, and today it’s a life skill. And we have to build our building that has multiple things to do and multiple attractions.

Every owner dreams that everybody will come two hours early and stay two hours late. We actually want to give them something to come for.


Building real estate, building attractions, building multipurpose uses of a venue where you can still create revenue when you’re not playing a game has a tremendous value over the long run.

This is the most complex business I’ve ever seen in my life. We’re in the foodservice business, we’re in the media business, we’re in the ticketing business, we’re in the sponsorship business, we’re in the music business, we’re big-time in the security business.

We’re hiring five-star chefs to prepare food because people expect that. And that’s what the future is, because money’s fungible but it’s not expandable.

Our competition is our biggest source of revenue. The television broadcast is spectacular today.

We have to build something unique and different, and market it and promote it and think about it radically different than it’s been done before. … If we make those bets, we won’t get them all right, but we’ll get a heck of a lot of them right.

Our audience has moved from 30 miles away from our arena to virtually 10 miles away from our arena. Our audience now takes rapid transit, and the city is putting billions of dollars in improving downtown infrastructure.

Today we are probably 80 to 82 percent fans and 18 percent business. I think that you will see the business piece rise.

I think you will continue to see more women coming to these events. We are about 34 percent female, and I’d like to get that to 40.

Tony Ressler is to me what an owner should be. He is a very, very successful businessman. He owns hundreds of companies, and he understands it’s the people who work for him that have to be empowered, have to have the resources, have to be used as a sounding board.

There are certain levels of owners. Some are totally engaged. It’s their full-time jobs. Some are passive investors and never seen. I think Tony’s the right blend of both.

The way that sports are constructed, being in the middle, which I would say we have been, is not a great place to be. You can be successful, but you can’t achieve your maximum success.

If I were commissioner for a day, I would radically change the schedule of the NBA. I would start around Thanksgiving or early December, and I would go straight up against baseball in July.

There’s an old fallacy about media by some of the dinosaurs that have seen media crumble that you can’t get eyeballs in the summer. Well, “American Idol” proved that false. The Olympics proved that false every four years. And the NBA Finals proved that false.

A “superteam” defined as three players I’m not sure is great for the league. A “superteam” that wins multiple championships with a superstar like [Michael] Jordan and maybe a great sidekick like [Scottie] Pippen is great for the league.

You can’t get rid of commercials. You can’t Netflix sports, because nobody can afford to do that.

I think baseball’s very long. I think the NBA’s perfect. And I love the NFL, because I start around noon and I finish around midnight, and then I watch highlights of what I just watched.

I worry that season tickets put too much demand on the ticket holder. I think the innovation around flex plans and around partial ticketing and group share are an area that really needs to be thought through.

Old guys like me — “Oh, you’re life is an arc, it’s a bridge, it takes time” — you know, time’s not our friend. And time is the most valuable asset we have, and the most perishable thing we have.

Things that enhance time and value are going to have to have real, real earning power.

Malls are in trouble today. What’s the new anchor store? Where are people spending money? Sports facilities.

[The Braves] built a facility that my kids are going to on Saturday night. They don’t know if there’s a game there or not.

Taking social cues for other industries and putting them into sports, we think, gives us better odds of being successful.