Hawks CEO Koonin still building a brand amid charmed season

With Steve Koonin as CEO, the Hawks have brought back the Pac-Man logo and put on promotions such as partnering with dating app Tinder for 'Swipe Right Night.'


David Goldman/AP

ATLANTA — The way Steve Koonin sees it, there’s little difference between working with the likes of Conan O’Brien, Vince Vaughn or Al Horford.

"They’re talent and you only win with talent," the Hawks CEO said.

In under a year on the job, the man who spearheaded the slogans "We Know Drama" and "Very Funny" for TNT and TBS, respectively, during his time at Turner, has become the behind-the-scenes face of the NBA’s biggest surprise.

It was Koonin that oversaw the return of the Pac-Man logo during last season’s playoff series against the Pacers, and after a tumultuous summer, it was Koonin that found creative ways to fill Philips Arena.

From a handwritten permission slip for fans to give their bosses after a late-night road win over the Clippers to a partnership with dating app Tinder for ‘Swipe Right Night,’ Koonin has been building a brand.

It just so happens that it’s all become that much easier as Atlanta leads the Eastern Conference by 6 1/2 games, is setting viewership records on SportSouth and boasts four All-Stars.

"We want to be irreverent, we want to be fun and we want to be digitally connected," Koonin said. "So winning and losing, I think gives you more emphasis and exposure necessarily than permission to. This is the voice and this is who we are."

Along the way, it’s also helped to make Koonin a local celebrity.

In changing how the team sells itself to its fanbase, Koonin interacts with them on Twitter, has made tickets more accessible with 1,500 seats for each game at $15 and he’s appeared in a video with Atlanta hip-hop icon T.I. to promote a pregame/halftime/postgame concert on opening night.

The video went viral as Koonin uttered "fo’ shizzle" as T.I. had his arm around him.

"I think part of the problem is there really hasn’t been a face of the ownership," Koonin said. "There hasn’t been anyone who’s been accountable for the good and the bad. I’m on the honeymoon of the good and it won’t always be this way. But one of the things I agreed to was to be the accountable party."

While the level of play has certainly played its part, Koonin’s efforts have helped the Hawks see a major upsurge in attendance.

Averaging 14,339 fans a year ago, which was 76.6 percent of Philips Arena’s capacity, Atlanta had just four sellouts. But this season, crowds sit at 90 percent (16,864) and 12 of the last 14 games have sold out.

Ask yourself this, how many NBA team CEOs can the average fan rattle off?

The proof of Koonin’s impact was there as ESPN’s Bob Ley polled Twitter for the reason for the Hawks’ success, and one fan, @yogmoney, responded "Steve Koonin. He’s the MVP of the entire organization."

"Steve has been, for me, he is a breath of fresh air, really creative and willing to go that extra mile for the organization," said Dominique Wilkins, the Hall of Famer and SportSouth analyst. "He’s done every single thing he’s set out to do and I don’t know anybody in that’s ever done that."

And Koonin is far from done.

"Winning and losing, I think gives you more emphasis and exposure necessarily than permission to," he said of his promotional efforts. "This is the voice and this is who we are. We’ve got some ideas coming up that will be in that vein."

While he won’t give any of that away just yet — "Oh … stay tuned," Koonin said with a smile — they will be holding a celebration for Wilkins dubbed Nique Week. It will include the March 6 unveiling of a 13 1/2-foot, 18,500-pound granite statue that will reside in front of the arena.

That the honor is coming this season and that Koonin is ushering it along makes it seem all the more fitting for Wilkins, who stands as the most prolific scorer in Hawks history.

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"It wouldn’t be the same," Wilkins said. "If this would have happened four or five years ago it wouldn’t have had the same impact because you wouldn’t have the person like Steve to take responsibility of it and take it to that next level."

During his 14-year run at Turner, Koonin was named by ‘Entertainment Weekly’ as one of the "Smartest People in Television."

While the venue has changed, the core of what he’s doing and what ultimately assures that it is a success remain the same.

"It’s a local business vs. a big, national business and there are there are huge differences but there’s big similarities," Koonin said. "But I think the principal of positioning the brand, promoting the brand and letting the players do their jobs makes the most amount of sense."

Follow Cory McCartney on Twitter @coryjmccartney