The Hawks and the Dream: How Basketball Changed U.S. Politics
(Bloomberg) -- The call that helped change voting in the U.S. came via flip phone last summer.
The phone belonged to Robb Pitts, chairman of the Fulton County Board of Commissioners, and the caller was Steve Koonin, chief executive officer of the NBA’s Atlanta Hawks and State Farm Arena, their home court. Koonin was offering his building -- closed to basketball, concerts and conventions by Covid-19 -- as a mega-precinct, hoping to provide a safer, more-convenient way for residents to vote.
Koonin and his boss, Hawks owner and private equity billionaire Tony Ressler, were willing to provide the building and the staff for an upcoming series of critical elections -- a Congressional runoff, the November general election and the U.S. Senate runoff that would determine the balance of power in the U.S. government. Pitts said yes almost immediately.
“In less than five minutes, I got back to him and said, ‘We’ve got a deal,’” Pitts said in an interview for the premiere episode of The Business of Sports, produced by Bloomberg’s Quicktake Originals. About 40,000 residents of Fulton County, the largest in the Georgia, voted at State Farm Arena in the general election, making it among the largest single polling sites in U.S. history.
Georgia went on to cast its Electoral College votes for a Democrat for the first time since 1992, and the state then sent two Democrats to the U.S. Senate, giving the party control.
State Farm and the Hawks also provided a template for other teams to open their facilities for voting. Voting access was part of the discussions among players, the league and team owners during the pause in play in the NBA bubble in Orlando, Florida, that followed the police shooting of Jacob Blake in Wisconsin. More than 40 sports venues were ultimately converted to voting sites, and more than 300,000 people cast ballots at NBA arenas alone.
Shortly after the Pitts-Koonin call, another local team -- the WNBA’s Atlanta Dream -- turned against one of its owners. Republican Senator Kelly Loeffler publicly criticized the Black Lives Matter movement and the league’s decision to allow players to wear T-shirts supporting it. Dream players, along with colleagues across the WNBA, publicly decried her stance and ultimately wore shirts that said “Vote Warnock,” a show of support for the Rev. Raphael Warnock, one of her opponents. He eventually won the seat.
Loeffler later sold her stake in the Dream to an investment group that included former Dream player Renee Montgomery, who sat out the 2020 season to focus on getting out the vote and issues of social justice. Montgomery collaborated with More Than a Vote, the effort created by LeBron James, and Fair Fight, founded by Stacey Abrams.
Those groups have shifted their efforts of late to protesting a recent law signed by Georgia’s Republican governor, Brian Kemp, that they say restricts access to voting. The law, passed by the Republican-controlled legislature, has drawn lawsuits as well as public and corporate outcry.
A group of 72 Black executives led by former American Express Co. CEO Ken Chenault and Ken Frazier, CEO of Merck & Co., wrote an open letter this week calling on all corporate leaders in the U.S. to publicly condemn new laws that they say will disproportionately hurt voting rights for African Americans.
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