There is no realistic way for the NBA to bridge the racial gap between the demographic that makes up its owners and the demographic that constitutes the majority of its players and the largest share of its fans. The solution, of course, would be more African-American owners. It’s hard to see that happening, though, when the skyrocketing franchise valuations have essentially reduced the applicant pool to people who made their money in sectors in which African-Americans are notoriously absent.
As Hardwood Paroxysm charted, seven teams have sold for $350 million or more since 2010. Four of the principal owners came from the tech sector, three from the investment/hedge fund management sector. Not even Oprah Winfrey could afford to play a game of financial hardball with Steve Ballmer.
The pathway to modern NBA ownership is a road that’s populated with few African-Americans. The San Jose Mercury News recently reported that African-Americans compose only 2 percent of tech workers at leading Silicon Valley companies. A CNN Money survey found only nine African-Americans out of 682 top-level management positions at Cisco, Dell, eBay, Ingram Micro and Intel.
The industrial revolution that created the first group of super-wealthy Americans had the secondary benefit of providing manufacturing jobs that offered a ladder to the middle class for African-Americans. Now those jobs have been downsized or outsourced overseas, and the tech revolution has served to emphasize the disparity in educational opportunities between white and black communities. This is the reality, these are the demographics and there’s nothing to indicate this will change soon. It’s a structural issue that’s well beyond the NBA’s range.
That brings us back to the gap, which we got a rare chance to see in written form when the Atlanta Hawks released the 2012 email that Bruce Levenson cited as his reason for selling his controlling interest in the team. Amazingly, Levenson managed to both call out racist thinking and play into its hands as he enumerated the challenges in attracting white fans to Hawks games — which he traced back to the large presence of black fans at Philips Arena. (Apparently he has never been to events such as, say, the Made In America festivals, where the presence of black fans doesn’t seem to deter white fans at all.) Levenson also said black fans are less likely to buy jerseys and even less likely to cheer loudly during intros than white fans.
It’s not that Levenson used loaded language or expressed a desire for African-Americans to stay away from the games. It’s the disconnect that’s the problem. The lack of value he placed on black fans and even their money. The refusal to recognize their humanity. That’s no way to do business in the NBA, particularly in Atlanta, where African-Americans are such a prominent part of the business, political and social scene.
Black players make up about 75 percent of the league’s players and 45 percent of the sport’s television viewing audience. But rather than find ways to appeal to the core constituency, Levenson preferred to marginalize them in order to pursue white fans. He had to go. What incentive would there be for black fans to buy tickets from a man who didn’t appreciate their money?
And what assurances do we have that something similar won’t happen again? These moments are setbacks for what is America’s most progressive league, the one that regularly earns A’s on Richard Lapchick’s racial and gender report card and keeps making breakthrough hires at various levels of the sport. But it’s still only one Levenson email or Donald Sterling conversation away from reverting to square one. Even when it’s not as blatant, it’s still a factor, as explored by Marcus Thompson’s thoughtful, nuanced look at the role race — but not racism — played in the Golden State Warriors’ firing of Mark Jackson.
One thing that emerged from Lee Jenkins’ Sports Illustrated profile of Adam Silver is that Silver’s teenage friendship with an African immigrant might have better prepared him to be NBA commissioner than his degree from Duke. To be effective in this league, to collaborate rather than merely work, white people on the ownership side have to be comfortable with black people. That comes from having black friends, black business partners, perhaps even black bosses along the way. But that would require people exiting their comfort zone, and how many people are willing to do that? (Don’t underestimate rich people’s desire to continue having things their way. The leaked Donald Sterling audio was actually about his exasperation that V. Stiviano wouldn’t do what he wanted more than it was a racial diatribe.)
The more reliable method to ensure harmony would be to have more owners who reflect the players and fans of the game. Currently, Michael Jordan is the only African-American owner, while Russian Mikhail Prokhorov and Indian-born Vivek Ranadive represent the NBA’s global aspirations. But with franchises going for $500 million to $2 billion, where would the African-American buyers come from?