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The Hawks Season is Over, So Now What?

What does the Cleveland Cavaliers sweep of the Atlanta hawks in the East Finals mean for the Hawks growing fan base next season?

Will Philips Arena stay full for the Hawks next season? (photo courtesy Melisa Robinson/Flickr)
Will Philips Arena stay full for the Hawks next season? (photo courtesy Melisa Robinson/Flickr)

The Atlanta Hawks season came to an end on May 26 with a 118-88 loss to the Cleveland Cavaliers in game four of the Eastern Conference Finals.

The win gave the Cavs their fourth straight in the series to complete the sweep over the Hawks and advance them to the N.B.A. Finals against the Golden State Warriors (Game 1, Thursday June 4 at 9 p.m. on A.B.C.)

The loss ends the year for Atlanta after a surprising regular season which included a 60-22 record, a franchise best and the number one seed in the Eastern Conference for the playoffs. The regular season also saw the historic re-emergence of the Hawks fanbase that had not been seen in quite some time.

Ever since the Hawks 19 game winning streak in January, ATLiens have filled the seats in waves at Philips Arena. The fans responded in kind to their new and improved team which was an efficient well running machine.

Then the inevitable appeared to happen after game two of the East finals on May 22 when Lebron James (#23)  led the Cavs with 30 points in the 94-82 win over the Hawks to take a commanding 2-0 lead in the series. With the next two games being played in Cleveland, fans and talking heads around the city declared the Hawks season D.O.A in Cleveland and the series prematurally over.

The next day during the afternoon show with Rob Tribble on WGCZ “929 The Game”, calls poured in from disappointed fans with opinions ranging from the Hawks living up to the city’s reputation to why Atlanta natives choose to never be fans of the home teams (and why they happier because of it.)

After having a season to cheer about in the early months of 2015 the Hawks fan base may now have fans who are ready to jump off the bandwagon again in the near future. With the Hawks best season in franchise history ending in painful disappointment will the bigger and better fan base weather the storm this time?

The reputation for Atlanta as a sports town is far too familiar with locals on both sides of the perimeter. Atlanta has been mocked and ridiculed for being mediocre sports town that is great to borrow for any big event when it’s needed. (FInals Fours, Centennial Olympics, and Super Bowls)

The local teams have been plagued by fair weather fan bases that have shown a minimal amount of loyalty or devotion to stick with their teams through the tough times. Why is this?

The “Heart of the South” does not have much of a locally grown fanbase to begin with. Metro-Atlanta is an area of transplants. According to the U.S. Census Bureau Metro-Atlanta’s population jumped 2.9 to 4.1 million in 2000 (ranked 11th in U.S.)

In 2013 Jacques Courtet of the Atlanta Business Chronicle reported that the metro area was expected to reach about 5.5 million in early January of that year.

Atlanta is a community where the majority of the population were not born and raised in the area so allegiances for many transplant’s sports fans will likely lie near their home teams or with a team that has a reputation of success already established.

Atlanta’s reputation is not aided by the history of attendance at professional sporting events only increasing when the teams play a big game or a team with big star players show up. According to N.B.A. league statistics by E.S.P.N. the Hawks finished 17th in home attendance for the regular season (avg. 17,412).

The number is encouraging that the team has stopped a five year decline in average attendance in the “Highlight Factory.” The alarming part of this statistic is that the four year decline has happened during the Hawks eight year stretch of making the postseason or better.

The overwhelming irony has been that Atlanta is not really even that bad of a sports town. The city has shown that it has what it takes to be a great sports town with fans who already have a passion for the game unfortunately that passion is not always directed to the local team.

Seven of the nine Hawks games I have attended from 2001 to 2014 there have been an abnormally hugh portion of fans for the opponent who cheered so loudly that it felt like Philips was the home arena for the road team.

I remember being in the stands on April 1, 2003 when Michael Jordan played his last game in Atlanta as a Wizard. After Shariff Abdul-Rahim sank a one-handed shot at the buzzer to to win the game for the Hawks.

The hometown fans booed them right off the court. On my way to the MARTA station I saw kids in (#23) Jordan jerseys crying and adults legitimately angry at the Hawks.

Outside of the Braves run of winning 14 consecutive N.L. East division titles there have not been a great legacy in the town. The “Highlight Factory” does not have much history to celebrate as far as the Hawks goes.

One of the banners that are in the arena rafters honors the band, Widespread Panic for achieving 15 sold out shows in a row at Philips Arena. Think about that, a rock band got a banner for doing something 15 times that the Hawks constantly struggled to do during those seven years (1999-2006).

The lack of star power for the Hawks in the last two decades has been another glaring issue that has kept some ATLiens away.

Hall of Famer and Hawks local T.V. color analyst, Dominique Wilkins is the most recognizable player for the Atlanta Hawks and he has not played for the team in 21 years. After Wilkens was traded to the L.A. Clipper in 1994 many ATLiens tapped out of support for the Hawks.

I remember hearing it all the time when I went to the game at the arena or when I mentioned the Hawks to a friend or someone at church. One of the most common replies that I received was that people had not followed the Hawks since “Nique” left.

To aid that argument there has not been a player in Atlanta that has been as recognizable to the Hawks as Wilkins was when he left.

There have been a few notable names that have played in the city (Dikimbe Mutumbo, Jason Terry, Abdul-Rahim, and Joe Johnson). None have ever lived to be the local celebrity that the “Human Highlight Reel” had been.

Since Wilkins, there was not much for Atlantans to cheer about or get excited over. The Hawks were just pitiful to mundane with some pockets of excitement until this season. The team started made changes little by little.

They weathered the potential P.R. nightmare that was the fallout from a racially insensitive email from then Hawks owner, Bruce Levenson and a phone conversation of general manager, Danny Ferry (on leave of absence) making offensive comments about Luol Deng’s African heritage.

Head Coach, Mike Budenholzer has implemented a system similar to what San Antonio Spurs coach, Gregg Popovich runs that helped the team win 5 NBA championships in the last 16 years.

The Hawks have become a team that has a strict blue collar work ethic with little glamour surrounding them. A stark contrast to the teams with superstar players that the major networks and sponsors choose to advertise and showcase over the Hawks during the season.

This new mold fits the Hawks and the fans took notice. When a game was on during the season the seats were filled with people from all races, ages, both genders, and different parts of the Atlanta area.

The Hawks have done their part this year to lay the groundwork to create an organic home-town fan base that it has waited for the last two decades.

The only certainty about the Hawks future with Coach Bud and new owner groups led by Tony Ressler and N.B.A. great, Grant Hill. To build on their strong fan base they have to do what it takes to keep winning on a high level and the fans will have a hard time finding a reason not to stay in the “Highlight Factory”.

Ben Abrams is the Collegian sports editor.

About Ben Abrams

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