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With the NBA season kicking off this week, the Atlanta Hawks are looking to build on last year’s magical playoff run. At the same time, the team is looking to continue to energize the community by embracing its cultural playbook titled ‘Beyond Basketball.’ The team’s chief marketer Melissa Proctor shares the team’s philosophy, success stories and hopes with The Drum.

True to Atlanta. It’s a mantra that encapsulates the community ties that the Hawks has been building for years. But don’t get it twisted: it is so much more than a mantra. 

The team has blossomed under burgeoning cultural and innovative progress. It’s not a renaissance. Rather, it’s a deeply-rooted intention that begins with key leadership. After guiding the group that acquired the Hawks in 2015, Tony Ressler fostered a belief in philanthropy and standing for more than what happens on the court.

“He made it clear that we are a community asset. And we are a civic asset before anything else,” says Melissa Proctor, Hawks’ executive vice-president and chief marketing officer. “This came from ownership from day one.”

With the buy-in from ownership ever-present, the philanthropic efforts and community outreach have been spearheaded by Proctor and members of her team.

Within the Hawks’ operations, you will not find the workings of a ‘traditional’ basketball team. Sure, the Hawks has a team that was knocking on the door of last season’s NBA Finals. It has a budding superstar in Trae Young. And yet, the Hawks’ front office has its sights set on something much more powerful than on-court success.

“It’s nice to have a successful team on court, but there’s no guarantee that will always be the case,” says Proctor. “It’s what you do off the court that can truly make a difference in others.”

This civic and entrepreneurial mindset takes form in a multitude of ways. From the experiential side, State Farm Arena has been transformed from the inside out to reflect the culture of the Atlanta market. Local hip-hop icon Killer Mike established his barbershop S.W.A.G. Shop as one of the first of many arena integrations with prominent members of the local community. 

“Killer Mike envisions a barbershop as so much more than a place to get your hair cut,” says Proctor. “That’s where conversations happen. It serves as an avenue for people of color to thrive as entrepreneurs. He brings in others from the Atlanta area, like when he held a show with Quavo. Like us, he strives to make a difference.”

Everywhere you go within State Farm Arena, the presence of the local culture is palpable. Massive art murals, commissioned and wielded by local artists, adorn large swaths of the dwelling. Singer Kandi Burruss-Tucker’s Old Lady Gang restaurant presents a local feel and serves as another vehicle for Black-owned businesses. And while Topgolf is headquartered in Dallas, multiple suites within State Farm Arena are outfitted with electronic golf bays, perhaps a nod to the city as the neighbor of Augusta where The Masters takes place. 

“You couldn’t put this arena in any other city,” Proctor adds. “It wouldn’t make sense. It lives, breathes and reflects the culture and vibe of Atlanta. People will always want to gather together to experience live events. I don’t see that changing. We conjure up different ways to add to that experience. Getting people next to you to feel the energy, the moment that we can provide. That’s special.”

State Farm Arena: more than just a sporting arena

The arena is utilized for so much more than just to be an entertainment hub. The team has made concentrated efforts to leverage their time, energy, resources and influence for good. Here are the key pillars:

Community. The Hawks pours into its community through a variety of programs. Particularly during the last year, the organization fostered proactive discussion regarding health and safety, protests and speaking out on issues within the community. Additional programs include providing fitness information and kits to Atlanta kids and empowering the current generation to utilize their platform regarding prominent social and racial issues.

Food insecurity. With many of the events that transpired throughout Covid-19, the organization teamed up with naming rights partner State Farm in a pledge to aid the community and give back to frontline workers.

Voting in the arena. Last year, The Hawks became the first NBA team to register as an official polling center and allow fans to cast their ballot on location. Community members, even non-season ticket holders, were galvanized by the initiative ahead of the 2020 presidential election, with over 40,000 locals showing up to vote at State Farm Arena.

The Women’s Entrepreneurship Initiative. With authenticity at the forefront, the team played homage to the late Martin Luther King Jr by adorning civic-inspired jerseys throughout the 2020-2021 season. Every dollar generated from uniform sales was given back to women entrepreneurs. Last season, a $100,000 donation was presented to the City of Atlanta’s business incubator for early-stage, women-owned businesses. The initiative further ties into the team’s unified message of empowering diversity as three out of four participants are women of color.

Lady Ballers. Aimed at improving the overall basketball experiences for girls aged 6-18, the developmental program implements how sport can teach valuable life skills at an early age. Lady Ballers includes basketball clinics, seminars with prominent WNBA personnel, and additional resources and backing to empower future female leaders within the sport.

The Diversity & Inclusion Council. In partnership with the Russell Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship, the Hawks provided education and resources to Black entrepreneurs, with Hawks’ ownership pledging $5m to help provide business owners access to corporate partners and capital. In 2015, the Hawks launched a Diversity & Inclusion council to strengthen community ties. One of the initiatives conceived became Mosaic (Model of Shaping Atlanta through Inclusive Conversations), bringing together hundreds of influential Atlanta residents to collaborate on the role sports leaders play in diversity. Additional actions taken included being the city’s first professional sports team to enter a float in Atlanta’s Annual Pride Parade, establishing a sensory inclusion room, and celebrating a multitude of cultures through cultural theme nights.

Sustainability. The Hawks made a notable run in their on-court performance during last season’s playoffs. Its on-court performance also made an impact within the realm of sustainability. Game 4 of the first-round playoff series against the New York Knicks on May 30 was the first True certified sporting event in the world. Among many other qualifications, True (Total Resource Use and Efficiency) certification meets requirements from GCBI (Green Business Certification Inc) including a zero-waste policy, an overall 90% or greater overall diversion from landfill, and reducing/reusing/recycling/recovering material for productive use in nature or economy, plus meeting all federal, state and local waste and recycling laws. This isn’t the first time State Farm Arena flexed its green muscles, as the organization successfully diverted 97% of fan-generated waste during the 2021 NBA All-Star Game. 

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Looking ‘Beyond Basketball’

Amid all of the activations, partnerships, community initiatives and events that occur within the confines of State Farm Arena and throughout the greater Atlanta community, a sense of greater purpose is ever-present. The culture of the Atlanta Hawks mirrors the support and backing the team shares within the community.

“So many people work here to have the honor of making lasting memories,” says Proctor. ”We know people remember their first game. They remember their first concert. You can take that feeling and couple it with real impact in the community. Internally, we feel that sense of pride while wearing the Hawks’ logo.”

At the nucleus of the front office is an internal, cultural playbook that lives at the heart of the organization. Beyond Basketball serves as something more than a shared set of values or a manual for corporate policy. It reinforces why Hawks’ employees take such immense pride in the work that they do.

“As a Hawks’ employee, you feel empowered,” says Proctor. “There are opportunities for growth for everyone. We seek out diverse backgrounds and perspectives. We aim to cultivate great people who feel great about what they’re doing. While we know we are the leaders in the work we execute, we leave our ego at the door. Our role within the community is so much bigger than basketball.”

The organization has been at the forefront of innovation and civic impact. While they do not shy away from their accomplishments, there is a much bigger focus in mind.

“Every team should own their city like we do. Not every team does,” says Proctor. “We are proud to be one and the same with our Atlanta community.”