Sports industry is taking direct action on voting, facilitating safe and accessible polling sites
Midway through June, following a Georgia primary marred by interminable lines and malfunctioning voting machines, the Atlanta Hawks hosted the first outsiders to visit State Farm Arena since it was shuttered by COVID-19, a group of 18 led by Fulton County commission chairman Robb Pitts.
Invited by Hawks CEO Steve Koonin, Pitts and his colleagues were there to see the arena through a lens they hadn’t contemplated.
At 680,000 square feet and easily accessible by mass transit, State Farm Arena in downtown Atlanta could provide the county with a supersized early voting center, a familiar location that would allow thousands to remain socially distanced from each other if need be.
That was Koonin’s pitch.
“When they walked into the bowl and saw the space and size of our building,” Koonin said, “it was — ‘Let’s do this.’”
Based on its mass and location alone, the arena is an obvious upgrade over the YMCA gymnasiums and church basements that serve as precincts, and even the government buildings, schools and libraries now generally available for early voting in many states.
But the Hawks offered more. They would fully staff the site, with their employees serving as poll workers, a dire need considering the older demographics of typical poll volunteers who likely will be dissuaded from volunteering because of the dangers posed by the pandemic. And the Hawks would cover all expenses, which Koonin estimates will reach mid-six figures, not including the work hours provided by Hawks employees, who will be paid while working the polls.
When Georgia’s early voting period begins on Monday, Oct. 12, State Farm Arena will offer what the team believes to be the highest capacity voting center ever in the U.S., with 300 machines, staffed entirely by the franchise. Fifteen employees have been trained as poll managers. Hawks IT workers have been trained to provide tech support.
“There will be no 60-plus-year-old volunteers that you’d see at your local library,” Koonin said. “It is 100% a Hawks venture.”
State Farm Arena is one of nearly 70 college and pro sports venues across the country that will play a role in voting during the next few weeks leading to the Nov. 3 general election, with most used as polling places and a handful that were rejected serving in other capacities, such as voter registration stations, training sites for poll workers or dropoff places for ballots.
The roster reaches across sports. Voters will cast ballots in 18 NBA arenas, including five that also host NHL teams; 13 NFL stadiums; 13 college-specific arenas; six MLB ballparks; five NHL-only venues; an MLS stadium and a NASCAR speedway.
It took a pandemic to create the dynamic that led to this wave, the simultaneous rise of necessity and availability, both born of the health crisis. The tighter quarters of traditional voting locations would make social distancing difficult and wait times unbearable in an election that could yield massive turnout. Were it not for the cancellation of many games and most concert tours, U.S. arenas would be otherwise occupied. The same virus that caused the problem allowed for a solution.
A call to action married that supply to a critical demand, a call to action born of anger and frustration in a historically disenfranchised community, amplified through sports.
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Early in June, Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson joined a Zoom call to address a once unlikely audience of about a dozen pro athletes convened by LeBron James, who after discussions with business partner Maverick Carter and other advisers had determined that a turn toward the election, and the issue of voting in communities of color, was the way he could most effectively use his platform in the wake of the death of George Floyd.
It was Benson who, in a previous meeting with Carter, suggested that if athletes wanted to have an impact on the election, they needed to go beyond tweeting and cutting PSAs reminding fans to vote. Already working on a project to offer their Uninterrupted multimedia venture as a platform to engage politically, James and Carter embraced the idea of turning that into a nonprofit organization of its own, providing the initial funding.
On a call that included James, NBA players Draymond Green, Trae Young and Udonis Haslem, WNBA player Skylar Diggins-Smith, NFL running back Alvin Kamara, ESPN analyst Jalen Rose and others, Benson reviewed some of the issues around voter suppression — the selection of difficult to reach, or manage, sites as polling places; intimidation tactics at the polls; and disinformation meant to dissuade people from voting, such as threats that they might be arrested on outstanding warrants or barred from voting based on criminal records.
She told them that the best way to counter inaccurate messages meant to keep Black voters away was to use their platform to serve as “trusted messengers” to the Black community. She also encouraged them to push their employers — the teams who were promising resources in the wake of protests — to turn their attention to ways they could use their platforms and venues to further voting initiatives.
James and Carter introduced the players to the nonprofit they would form and the man they’d hired to lead it, Addisu Demissie, a political consultant and strategist who managed the 2020 presidential campaign of Sen. Corey Booker and 2018 gubernatorial campaign of California Gov. Gavin Newsome. They laid out the vision for a nonprofit that would focus its strategy on tangible solutions to a specific problem, voter suppression.
A former law school dean, Benson spent three years in sports as CEO of the Ross Initiative in Sports for Equality, where she launched the nonprofit’s Rise To Vote athlete engagement project. Her first day with the organization was in 2016, on the week that quarterback Colin Kaepernick first knelt during the national anthem.
“Every player on that call immediately got it and immediately started collaborating on how they could use their platform, their voice, their stories to further the needs of democracy right now on behalf of every voter,” Benson said. “I worked with professional athletes for two years. Not everyone is well-intentioned. Sometimes people just want the spotlight. They want to be seen doing things. And that’s not what this group was. They were there to work and have an impact. That’s what we need this year.”
More Than A Vote now includes 54 athletes, entertainers and influencers, including NFL players Patrick Mahomes and Odell Beckham Jr., baseball players David Price and Jack Flaherty and a flock of current and former NBA and WNBA players.
This goes beyond PSAs and tweets. The organization has focused its relationships and resources on areas of tangible impact, most notably the opening of sports venues as voting sites and recruitment of young poll workers, especially those of color, to work in underserved communities facing the most dire needs.
“We were deliberate,” said Adam Mendelsohn, a longtime James adviser and political strategist who worked for then California Gov. Arnold Schwartzenegger. “The arena initiative. Recruiting poll workers. It was never about broad, registering people to vote. That work is really important, but a lot of people are doing it. There weren’t people focusing on Black voter suppression. So we decided that was what we were going to do.
“We from the very start wanted to be action oriented. … It was about trying to create outcomes.”
This was a departure from what athletes and celebrities often have done, lending their voices and sometimes even their finances, but stopping short of addressing infrastructure that might lead to the change they envisioned. James, Chris Paul, Carmelo Anthony and Dwyane Wade took a powerful stance when they used the ESPYs to urge athletes to use their platforms to promote social change four years ago. Two years before that, James and a handful of other prominent players wore “I Can’t Breathe” T-shirts on the floor before a game to raise awareness of the death of Eric Garner during a confrontation with New York City police.
And still, in a two-month span earlier this year, police killed Floyd in Minneapolis and shot Breonna Taylor to death in Louisville.
NBA players negotiated powerful messaging as part of the agreement that led to the resumption of play this summer during the pandemic, but perhaps more importantly, they pushed for and received assurances that the league and teams would use their resources to fight systemic racism.
More Than A Vote aimed to serve as a conduit to fulfill that promise, connecting teams with voting experts such as Benson, who offered recommendations on the best uses for their buildings and encouraged election officials to consider innovation at a time of unprecedented disruption.
When NBA players returned from their short walkout in late August, they secured assurances that all teams that owned or controlled their arenas would press hard to have them used for voting when possible, and other election-related uses when not.
During the NBA Finals, and the conference finals before that, players replaced the Black Lives Matter shirts that they wore during warmups — and more visibly as they knelt during the anthem — with team color T-shirts bearing one word: Vote.
The get-out-the-vote message was clear not only on the court, but during commercial breaks. Along with a voting information center spot from Facebook, ABC aired a spot from “When We All Vote” that included NBPA President Chris Paul. More Than A Vote had 40 first-time poll volunteers in the virtual crowd, which heard from former President Barack Obama. The organization also ran a poll worker recruiting spot during the NBA playoffs.
Four months since that Zoom meeting, the organization can point to tangible progress.
“We’ve been able to go narrow and deep in a few places,” Demissie said, pointing to the widespread adoption of arenas and stadiums, recruitment of more than 10,000 poll workers and players’ calling out of misinformation. “Those are not small issues. They’re big issues. But they are also places where we can make some change.”
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Though Koonin points to a series of internal conversations that tie the inspiration of the Hawks’ offering to the June protests, rather than the Georgia primary meltdown, there is little doubt that the epic fail in Fulton County played a role not only in that county’s willingness to consider alternatives, but also in the surge of acceptance that followed across the country.
The long lines in Atlanta spurred former Atlanta Falcons assistant general manager Scott Pioli to call for the use of otherwise dormant sports facilities as polling places, an idea he presented at a meeting of the National Association of Secretaries of State late in June and has pushed with former colleagues across the NFL.
Benson took Pioli’s suggestion back to More Than A Vote organizers, encouraging them to use their sports connections to spread it there while she lobbied election officials.
“The most complicated thing I’ve seen in having a lot of these conversations around the country is just getting people on both sides who have never really envisioned this to see it come to fruition,” Benson said. “Once you get buy-in from both the election administrator and the owner of the arena and team, a real commitment to making it work, then you can overcome any security or other logistic that comes into play.”
The process of preparing an arena or stadium to handle voting in an age of social distancing is mostly logistical, a matter of deciding what goes where and how to move people through the process.
At State Farm Arena, voters will arrive to find complimentary PPE distribution, then enter through one of three active gates, clearing security through metal detectors and bag checks before checking in with poll workers on the concourse. From there, they will move to the floor, where 300 voting machines will be set up at least 10 feet apart from each other. Both the concourse and the floor should allow for plenty of space while waiting.
There will be no mascots or DJ; no player appearances. The only nod to the Hawks’ involvement will be on the sticker that voters receive upon exit, where a peach-colored basketball will replace the standard peach.
The Hawks fine-tuned the process during a primary in August, but expect a far larger turnout this month, with not only the president but both U.S. Senate seats on a ballot that includes 22 races. The county projects the arena to attract more than 100,000 early voters in the next three weeks, Koonin said, a load that the Hawks are prepared to handle, with more than 150 employees signed up to handle at least one 10-hour shift.
“We’re in the business of hosting people,” Koonin said. “Your YMCA is not. The library is not. Your school is not.”
As logical as stadium and arena voting may seem to many, some municipalities have declined the offers, citing either late applications, unsuitable location or a lack of demand. Last week, the city of Milwaukee announced cancellation of plans to offer voting at Fiserv Forum and Miller Park, blaming fear of a court challenge.
Miami-Dade County declined offers from both the Dolphins and Heat, the latter of which responded with a pointed statement that called out the county for instead choosing a nearby museum that is far smaller, less visible and less accessible.
In the statement, the Heat said they initially proposed the arena as a site in June, but that county election officials did not agree to tour the venue until August. Eric Woolworth, Heat president of business operations, said that based on that visit and later exchanges he expected the site to be approved.
“We did everything we could possibly do, and we do believe we convinced the [election] professionals that we were in fact the best polling site, and a political decision was made not to use it,” Woolworth said. “We basically begged. It was what we wanted. It was what our players wanted. All the NBA teams are trying to do it. We got denied, and it was absolutely a political decision.”
The Minnesota Timberwolves also saw the offer of their arena as a polling site rejected, though without the acrimony that unfolded in Miami. Timberwolves CEO Ethan Casson said he did not believe the decision was politically motivated. Deciding that further lobbying for use of a county-owned building was futile, the T-Wolves turned their attention to a voter registration drive targeting underserved communities.
Working under the slogan “Pack The Vote,” the franchise worked with local nonprofits on three events registering voters in underserved communities, including the nearby Minneapolis neighborhood in which Floyd died. Like most franchises, the Wolves also have encouraged employees to work as poll workers and devote large swaths of their digital and social platforms to the issue.
“We went down that path [of offering the arena as a polling site], but I don’t know that it had a ton of legs,” Casson said. “We decided to develop an initiative that brought the same message into under-resourced communities and made it about registration.”
Dodger Stadium was one of the earlier venues to get clearance as a polling site, announcing its plans to host five days of early voting in partnership with More Than A Vote. Though its original plan was to focus on swing states, it approached Dodger Stadium in the hope that its iconic position would influence other franchises and venues.
The ballpark will station machines on its covered top deck, providing space for social distancing and protection from the elements while allowing fans to vote outdoors. They also will offer free parking in a lot that since late May has been home to the nation’s highest capacity COVID testing center.
“We have the room for social distancing,” said Dodgers President Stan Kasten. “We have the parking. We have the access. We have the weather. So everything made sense.
“There is more than just the usual good citizen element to this. This was spurred because of the national health crisis. This is helping to keep as many of us safe as possible. That was a very strong motivation.”
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Among the many tactics that the Hawks and other NBA teams are employing to engage fans in voting is a feature that allows them to text “Hawks” to be connected to “I Am A Voter,” a service that walks users through the voter registration processes, absentee and mail-in ballot rules, sample ballots and other information based on their zip codes.
Texting “Hawks” records a fan as a pledged voter, credited to the team. As a promotion, the Hawks are competing against the Golden State Warriors for the “John Lewis: Good Trouble Trophy,” an honor named for the recently deceased Georgia congressman and civil rights leader.
The Hawks hold a sizable lead heading down the stretch, meaning they likely will keep a trophy Koonin had commissioned from a bust of Lewis, hovering above the bridge that he famously crossed during a civil rights march in Selma, Ala.
The past four months have brought an undeniable social and political awakening among athletes, some of whom have emerged as leaders, pushing teams and leagues to take stances on matters they’d previously avoided.
That the movement found its way to the issue of voter suppression, and a push to encourage and enable voting — without a specific focus on party, candidate or issue — has taken sports to what may be a more unifying, and safer, place in an otherwise polarized country.
“I don’t know if voting is safer or not,” Koonin said. “That’s not the framework of thought here. But what I do know is it is actionable. A lot of what has happened in our country, there is no lack of verbiage. But this is truly an action that is at its core what a democracy is about. To participate in that is taking a point of view. And our point of view is that everybody should have a safe, easy place to exercise the right to vote.
“We did everything we can do to flatten the hurdle of voting. If somebody is against that, we haven’t heard from them.”