Owner Ressler has big plans for Hawks’ present and future

Tony Ressler has plans — some large in scope — for the Hawks, Philips Arena and downtown Atlanta.

The Hawks’ principal owner has been busy in his first nine months in charge of the NBA franchise. While Ressler hadn’t spoken publicly since his group completed a purchase of the Hawks in June until the unveiling of a new practice facility last week, he has established a set of five priorities for the franchise. They are the driving force for the direction that he, his partners and team management said they are committed to following for the present and future. Ressler wants the Hawks to keep winning, improve facilities, build community, improve the fan experience and contribute to downtown vibrancy.

“These are five priorities that will not go away,” Ressler said.

Ressler, CEO Steven Koonin and president and coach Mike Budenholzer spoke with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution in an exclusive interview Friday about their vision for the franchise. The group revealed the guiding priorities, preliminary details of a major renovation to Philips Arena and, for the first time, acknowledged their desire for mixed-used development around the arena.

Concerning renovations to Philips Arena, Ressler and other have had several meetings with Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed, who has said the city could afford to finance $100 million to $150 million of what could be a $200 million to $300 million overhaul of the arena. The team is looking to, among a number of upgrades, replace the bank of suites that dominate one side of the arena, install a variety of different-size suites, improve the connectivity so fans can navigate around the arena on one level and create better floor seating by changing the layout which originally had oval ends to accommodate hockey.

The major construction would begin in the summer of 2017 for completion in 2018, without any interruption of the Hawks’ season, for the 50th anniversary of the team’s move to Atlanta.

Koonin said conceptual planning is underway for fan amenities that will be expected in 2020.

“What I mean by that is that there are great clubs, there’s great food, there are places to dine, there are things to do in the arena,” Koonin said. “When this building was designed, a night out was a hot dog and a beer. Today, the consumer just demands more, and we have to be able to fulfill that demand.”

Koonin said Philips Arena is one of 10 facilities built in the late 1990s and the only one yet to be renovated. That time has come, he said.

Ressler acknowledged that the Hawks plan to be a catalyst in the continued development of downtown Atlanta. The AJC previously reported on ownership's desire to transform the area near Philips Arena, similar to the conversion around the Staples Center in Los Angeles. Ressler said a timeline for such plans is six months to a year.

“I can’t give you the vision today, but to say we have spent real time looking at this general area in an effort to create a vision that you would hear, see and say ‘Wow, I get it,’” Ressler said. “That’s precisely what we are trying to do. To say that we are there today would be untrue. But to say we are looking to understand, really, the entire region with some complicated parts to it — who owns what, what can and can’t be done and what other really well-intentioned and quality people are out there trying to do other things that we hope happen that we could compliment and support them.”

Ressler detailed the five organizational priorities:

1. Keep winning

The team is coming off a 60-win season and a trip to the Eastern Conference finals.

“We knew when we bought the Hawks, we knew we had great players, and we knew we had a great coach, and we knew we had great senior management,” he said. “We knew we had dedicated employees. Not just to keep winning, but really to build that winning culture. It’s the most important thing you can do in a sports franchise to create loyalty is to keep winning.”

2. Improve facilities

The team announced plans for a $50-plus million practice facility in partnership with Emory last week.

“The NBA is a really competitive place,” Ressler said. “To ask your players, your coaches, your conditioning staff to compete with lesser facilities, you are just making an incredibly hard job more difficult. … We don’t want to look up to anybody.”

3. Build community partnerships

Among community projects, the Hawks have installed several neighborhood basketball courts in the past year.

“We knew we were buying a community asset,” Ressler said of buying an NBA franchise. “This is a private/public partnership in the true sense of the word. … Building that community partnership, I would argue, for great franchises is not important, it’s critical.”

4. Improve fan experience

The fan experience will play a major role in the arena renovations. Fan experience is also the grounding principle by which all of the franchise’s priorities appear to come together.

“We have to collaborate with the city to make the arena more fan friendly, a better experience for all of your fans,” he said.

5. Contribute to downtown vibrancy

There are approximately 200 event dates at Philips Arena, not limited to basketball games, but including concerts, shows and meetings, which attract people to downtown. Ressler said the Hawks would like to add to the momentum already underway with the new Falcons stadium and development around Centennial Olympic Park.

“It’s an extraordinary city,” Ressler said. “Maybe better, deeper, wider from a business perspective than we might have hoped for with the number of companies, the amount of success, the diversity. … This is far too extraordinary a city to have a downtown that isn’t much more vibrant. Our hope, our objective and certainly the vision that we hope to bring is how do we be a meaningful participant in moving that forward. Really transforming what this downtown area could and should be.”