I usually don’t watch basketball, especially NBA, but one club grabbed my attention. It’s the Atlanta Hawks. I really like the way they showed that with great marketing you can turn things around.  The Hawks, as a basketball team, are good. But it takes a marketing genius to make such results with Hawks, and that genius is Steve Koonin and his team.



Atlanta is a city with many NBA fans who love the Bulls, Lakers and any other teams with superstars instead of their Hawks. They needed to convert these people into Hawks fans, and it couldn’t be done by targeting old fans who have grown up loving  other teams. It had to be done by going after younger generations and embracing the diversity of the Atlanta city. 

Some say Atlanta is a city of transplants who brought their loyalties to other teams with them. There’s the loser theory, too: Fans in Atlanta don’t connect to the Hawks because the team hasn’t been to the NBA’s final four since 1969. The roster hasn’t featured a superstar since Dominique Wilkins was shipped out of town in 1994. (source:ESPN)

Atlanta consistently has some of the highest television ratings in the nation for the NBA Finals, All-Star Game and the like, says ESPN source. When the Knicks, Lakers, Celtics, Bulls and Team LeBron would come to town, Philips Arena is packed, with fans rooting for the opposition.  

According to the ESPN Sports Poll, only 20 percent of respondents in the Atlanta area who identify themselves as NBA fans name the Hawks as their favorite team. That was horrible for the club, and they needed to change this trend.  

Especially horrible is the following fact: The Hawks had fewer than 5,500 full season-ticket holders. On the other side, Golden State Warriors, a team with a dismal history that plays in an old concrete building in a location far less attractive than the site of Philips Arena have 14,500 full season-ticket holders with a lengthy wait list. (source: ESPN)

This brings us into paradox that many clubs around the world have: The Hawks won’t attract top talent until the building is full of Hawks fansbut the building won’t be full of Hawks fans until the Hawks have top talent.


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Atlanta Hawks marketing ‘magician’ Steve Koonin


I really like what they have done, they focused all their attention on another target group, but not without proper research. This shows the pattern all of us need to use when we want to start something new, or refresh old brand.

The most predisposed to becoming Hawks fans were the millenials, and Atlanta has 2.1 million of them, as well as a diverse audience – African American, Asian, Hispanic.”

Twice a week, Koonin assembled focus groups composed of his 27-year-old son, David, and a diverse group of his millennial friends and co-workers, fans and non-fans. Koonin asked the millennials their impressions about various marketing proposals that he thought could help the club in the future.  


“I wanted to get confirmation because I wasn’t the target,” Koonin said. “When I worked in television, I was much more of the target demographic and I could relate to the product and there was a gut sense of what worked. With the Hawks, I’m a middle-aged white Buckhead executive talking about African-Americans and millennials.” (source: ESPN)


With a new audience in sight, the Hawks needed to refresh, and they made an impressive job if you ask me. During the 2014 playoffs, the Hawks unveiled a modernized version of their iconic “Pac Man” logo. It was to be their secondary logo, while the large Hawk gripping a basketball remain the primary one.

But in October, the new logo took its place as the center icon on a newly painted court. It can be seen on Twitter, Facebook, and t-shirts across Atlanta.

The Hawks also hope to collaborate with the league on a dark charcoal court, not so much to enhance the live experience, but because they want a generation of gamers to choose Atlanta when they fire up NBA2K.

Getting people back to the seats required more than just a paint job and new logo. They needed to invent a totally new concept inside the Philips Arena, they needed to create an exciting experience for their fans. It required approaching the game as a form of entertainment.



So, Koonin tried to make the Hawks games an unforgettable experience from the time you enter to the time you leave, and this is something that young people love. Each game now starts with a 3D court projection, cheerleading, games for fans, dancers, acrobatics by high-flying basketball dunkers, and, of course, the actual game.

“We’re not going to build it the traditional way by taking out a ton of ads and blasting our message on radio like we’re selling a product, because we’re not,” Koonin said for ESPN. They are selling an emotion. It’s a sentiment, you have to make an authentic, emotional connection with fans.

Game is now fun, and affordable for Hawks target group, with 1,500 tickets selling at $15, no matter the game. 

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Date nights, microbrews, uniforms inspired by comic books — all of this might sound like an old person’s idea of what a young person wants, and that might be the case. We could name Atlanta Hawks as the Millennials Basketball club!


Digital has changed the way we experience sports. Yet perhaps most importantly, Koonin recognized that (even he is not that young, therefore, there were focus group that I mentioned above), in order to bring to the club the younger generation, the Hawks needed to speak with their language. And what’s the best place to speak their language? Social media, of course!

“Whether it’s a positive or negative reaction, the point is that we wanted to see a reaction.

The Hawks’ Twitter, @ATLHawks, has made headlines repeatedly throughout the season for its quick wit and creativity. The Hawks are… well, cool. And millennials love that!

One of the best examples… It should say HaWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWks, but, Twitter would only allow HaWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWks. W symbolizes win, and they put it in their Twitter name!

Along with rebranding, Atlanta Hawks have embraced the role of social media in promoting the team. @ATLHawks Twitter account successfully combines game updates and press releases with fans and clubs interaction and humor. They use the Millennials way of communication, with short videos, emojis, GIFS etc.

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We’re just having fun, and I think Hawks fans and sports fans truly appreciate that. We don’t take ourselves too seriously and like staying current and in the pop culture conversation. There’s no better place to get all the news you want about the team and have a laugh than with our Twitter account.”

Hawks have done an excellent job at changing their image while becoming more engaged with their social media. Once again, they are speaking the language of their target group, the Millenials (look at the examples below). In an official press release, the Hawks highlighted increases in social media engagement from January 2014 to January 2015:

  • – Facebook: Increase of over 200,000 more fans reached daily; more than 20,000 additional engaged daily users
  • – Twitter: Over 14,000 new monthly followers; 450,000 more daily impressions
  • – Instagram: More than 20,000 new monthly followers; over 2,000 more likes on posts

Social media is such a big part of how millennials communicate and take in information that it’s vital to not only our brand but every brand to incorporate social media in their strategic planning. We have been and will continue to be early adapters in that space.

I really like the app they created, it’s very simple, but it gives you all the information you need. It’s also connected with social media, and you can follow everything from Twitter, Facebook and other channels via App. With all this, Hawks showed that they understand their target group, and with this in mind, they can only grow as a club. 


First of all, everything is possible with people who know how to do their job. From the Hawks example, we learned that you must know who is your target, and after you have the answer to the first question, it would be great to talk with these (targeted) people. Hawks made that happen with the millennials.

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Millennials love informal conversation on social media, entertainment during the event, and basically any new cool things. Hawks are cool on social, they are joking with people and clubs, they have a great entertainment program in Philips Arena and a new cool logo and uniforms! 

The worst thing any brand can have is apathy. Because of that, we refreshed brand!”

Their target group also has problems with money, and the Hawks recognized that. They reduced the ticket price to $15 for 1500 seats for every game, whether they’re playing the Lakers, Bulls, or whoever. 

Results? They are popular not only in Atlanta, but all over the world. They had the 2nd highest attendance in the NBA (after Cleveland), and they had grown their fanbase with millennials who will love the club even when they are 40. If you remember the beginning of this article, many 40-year-olds in Atlanta support other NBA teams.  


One year ago, Atlanta was a city that was indifferent to the Hawks. Today, the city is rallying around their team, Koonin’s strategy worked. Because being a Hawks fan no longer means that you are outdated. Even here in Croatia, I am starting to be their supporter, and that is a great job!


SOURCES: ESPN, Metro Atlanta Chamber, sbnation.com, bleacherreport.com

PHOTO: Youtube screenshot


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