Hawks plan to ‘reimagine’ arena and fan experience

Unlike two other Atlanta sports franchises, the Hawks aren’t at work on building a new stadium. But they are in the early stages of assessing what’s next for 15-year-old Philips Arena.

“One of the big opportunities that has me excited … is reimagining our arena and the area around it,” Bruce Levenson, the Hawks’ lead owner, said in an interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

That long-term process, Levenson said, is one of the major items he has put on the plate of the Hawks’ newly hired CEO, former Coca-Cola and Turner Broadcasting executive Steve Koonin. Another is a mandate to put the Hawks at the forefront of enhancing fan experience through content on mobile devices, which Levenson thinks can be used “in profound ways” to increase attendance and TV audiences.

“We want the arena to accommodate people’s lifestyles,” Koonin said. “We want it to be more than just a place to see a game. We’ve got to be able to create an experience that can compete with everything going on in Atlanta, and there are so many things.”

The Hawks’ desire to reimagine the arena, which is owned by the Atlanta-Fulton County Recreation Authority and operated by the team, comes as both the Braves and Falcons are building new stadiums with the help of hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars.

The Hawks’ lease requires them to play in Philips until $124.5 million in bonds — refinanced in 2010 — are paid off, currently scheduled to take place Dec. 1, 2028. A $75 million penalty the team would owe for paying off the bonds early and relocating from the arena is in force until 2017.

Levenson said this is the time to focus on the arena’s future.

“There is a convergence of things going on,” he said. “There’s a bunch of new stuff opening around our arena — the College Football Hall of Fame, the Center for Civil and Human Rights, and a new football stadium that is going to be built. And there’s still this great empty space infamously called ‘the Gulch.’”

A big part of Levenson’s ambition for the arena’s future involves what most might consider a long shot: development of an entertainment complex in the Gulch, a 120-acre area of railways and parking lots neighboring Philips. Levenson said he looks at the area and envisions something like the thriving entertainment districts around the 02 Arena in London and Staples Center in Los Angeles.

“We think it’s the right time to try to pull all the parties together and have a really meaningful conversation about what we can do there to make the fan experience for the new football stadium and our arena richer,” Levenson said. The parties, he said, would include the city, state, Falcons and developers.

“It is just in the internal, us-talking-about-it stage and now finding a leader in (Koonin) who can help pull the various constituencies together to start thinking about it in more meaningful ways,” Levenson said. “I would love our building to be the anchor for something bigger and more exciting for our fans in that immediate area. That is going to be our first focus.”

Asked if replacing Philips Arena as the Hawks’ home is an eventual possibility if his first focus fails, Levenson replied: “When our arena is full, it’s a beautiful place; it really is. So I’m going to put all my energy into creating both an in-arena experience and an around-the-arena experience that is going to encourage people to come. That is the way we’re thinking about this.”

Levenson said it’s too early for substantive discussions with political leaders about potential public contributions.

“We have to be much smarter about this, have to begin to marshal some of the other constituencies,” Levenson said. “Then it would be time to have hopefully a smarter conversation with the mayor.”

He described last month’s hire of Koonin, a lifelong Atlantan, as partly driven by the need for a local CEO to guide new opportunities.

“Venues do have to be constantly reimagined,” Koonin said. “But we have to have partners. That is the only way it is working around the country.”

A concrete step the Hawks have taken toward trying to change the experience inside the arena involves something fans bring with them: their smartphones. Levenson sees mobile devices as a “huge, move-the-needle opportunity” to connect with fans during and between games.

Philips Arena recently signed an agreement with Boingo Wireless, a leading provider of cellular and Wi-Fi networks for large venues, to install state-of-the-art technology designed to provide comprehensive wireless coverage for fans throughout the building.

“We have developed a big vision for (mobile content) that we think will deepen our relationship with our fans in really profound ways and drive both attendance and viewership,” Levenson said. “We are taking the first step in that process by in effect hot-wiring every seat in Philips Arena.”

Koonin’s media background equips him to lead the way in mobile content, said Levenson, noting the effort will require coordination with local and national TV partners.

“We believe there is a generation coming up now where the phone is an appendage of their body,” Koonin said. “And we also believe the NBA lines up perfectly with this millennial group.”

Levenson offered a basic example of how smartphones might be used to enhance fan experience: “Let’s say there’s a second left in our game against the Heat. The Heat are up by one point. Kyle Korver has just been fouled. The Heat call timeout. During that timeout, your phone lights up, and you’re asked, ‘Is Kyle going to make both free throws?’ You’ll get some data like his free-throw percentage in the last minute of games decided by three points or less. You’ll answer yes or no. If you answer correctly and are in the arena, you’ll get 1,000 points on your Hawks rewards account.”

Other ideas for the arena, Levenson said, include a new scoreboard and “places where people can congregate before the game, at halftime, after the game.”

Koonin knows there is much work to do, given that the Hawks ranked 28th in the NBA in attendance this season.

“I think we have to create a little bit of magic to fill the seats,” Koonin said. “It’s all got to work in concert. It’s got to be on the court. It’s got to be a socially fun place to go. It’s got to be where you have an experience that is so positive you can’t wait to come back.

“There are nights this arena is magic. We’ve got to make it more consistent. That will take time, but we will get there.”