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ATLANTA (AP) — Steve Koonin has cheered on the Atlanta Hawks surrounded by thousands of empty seats. He's cheered them on when the place was rockin'.
The new CEO of the Hawks has no doubt the latter can become the norm at Philips Arena.
A lifelong resident of Atlanta, Koonin left his job as president of Turner Entertainment Networks to take a lead role with the Hawks, who hope he can transform a downtrodden franchise into one of the NBA's must-see teams.
"There's no magic beans," Koonin told The Associated Press on Monday, after he was introduced as the newest member of Atlanta's ownership group. "I think a big piece of what's needed here is the confidence to know that we are Atlanta, and this a great opportunity. We need to shout that. That's what we're going to do. We're going to shout it from the rooftops."
In addition to taking an ownership stake in the team, Koonin will serve as chief executive officer, oversee all business operations, and represent the ownership at league functions.
"We've got to broaden our fan base," Bruce Levenson, the team's majority owner, told the AP. "I think Steve is going to be the gasoline that accelerates that process."
Koonin comes to the Hawks after 14 years with Turner Entertainment Networks, where he led the division that included TNT, TBS, TruTV and Turner Classic Movies. He previously spent more than a decade as an executive at Coca-Cola, focusing on sports and entertainment marketing.
The Hawks are counting on Koonin to raise the profile of a franchise that has struggled to draw fans or lure big-name free agents.
"We need to create an emotional connection between the city of Atlanta and the team," he said. "I've seen it done in other cities and we're going to do it here."
At Turner, Koonin was involved in programming and media rights acquisition for both the NBA and the NCAA tournament. He helped build strong brands with "NBA on TNT" and "Inside the NBA," which he quipped was nothing more than having the foresight to use Charles Barkley in a format that is essentially "a comedy show."
Over the past decade, the Hawks have never ranked in the top half of the league in attendance and are largely overlooked in a market that also has the NFL, Major League Baseball and a passion for college football. Heading into their final regular-season home game Monday night, the Hawks were averaging 14,400 a game — 28th out of 30 NBA teams despite making the playoffs for the seventh year in a row.
But there have been some memorable moments. Koonin remembers the Hawks routinely drawing sellout crowds at the Omni in the late 1980s for a team led by Dominique Wilkins, and the new CEO was there as a fan in 2008 when Atlanta returned to the playoffs after a long absence, winning all three games at home against the eventual NBA champion Boston Celtics before raucous, standing-room-only crowds.
"We need to constantly remind the fans how much fun this is," Koonin said.
Under general manager Danny Ferry, the Hawks are in the midst of a major rebuilding effort. Only two players, center Al Horford and point guard Jeff Teague, have been with the team longer than two years — and Horford missed most of this season with an injury.
Koonin's focus will be off the court, though it all ties in together. He knows if the Hawks can create a championship-caliber team and show strong support from the city, they'll be more attractive to top-of-the-line free agents such as Dwight Howard, who spurned an offer to play for his hometown team last summer.
"We have to make players think this is a place they can be very successful," Koonin said.
He acknowledged some initial trepidation about joining an ownership group that has been heavily criticized in Atlanta — most notably, for selling its NHL team, the Thrashers, to a group that moved that franchise to Winnipeg.
Now, Koonin said, he's convinced that Levenson and his partners are doing all the right things to build a winner in Atlanta.
Likewise, Levenson said the new CEO has the know-how in digital and social media products to make the Hawks a leader in those areas. Koonin, in fact, touted his Twitter account and said he's willing to listen to anyone who has ideas on improving the game experience.
"If you get a surly parking attendant," Koonin said, "I'm someone you can talk to."
Follow Paul Newberry on Twitter at www.twitter.com/pnewberry1963
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