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'Election central': Hawks CEO Steve Koonin on how team plans to transform arena into voting site

Atlanta has many ideas for November -- including training team employees to become poll workers

ORLANDO, Fla. — Earlier this summer, when American cities first saw and heard and felt the thunder caused by thousands of angry voices in the streets, large public gathering spots became boisterous town halls. The protestors in Atlanta chose Centennial Olympic Park, which is about a Trae Young 3-point shot from the Atlanta Hawks’ arena, and born from this rumble was a method of action.

That’s how great ideas are generated anyway, through debate and conflict and exchange. And inspiration, too, which is what flowed through the veins and head of Steve Koonin right there and then.

He’s the CEO of the Hawks and a man whose mind never shuts off anyway, and the protest had Koonin buzzing from within.

“Right in the nexus of the protests, I’m watching all the young people and the energy,” he said from Atlanta. “I’m a big fan of peaceful demonstration, I think it’s incredibly important. And I wanted to say that I understand what you’re protesting but I don’t know what could come of it because there was no contemplation of what the actions would be.

“Then it dawned on me that the only way to make change is to vote.”

Two months later, vote is the four-letter word everyone in the NBA is screaming — LeBron James wore a “Vote Or Die” shirt at Monday’s Lakers practice — while embracing the light bulb above Koonin’s head that flashed this: Why not turn sports arenas into polling and voting centers for the November election?

Suddenly, there’s a massive snowball here in late summer. First, the Hawks and the city of Atlanta announced State Farm Arena would be such a site. Then, following more national unrest, NBA players just days ago put polling centers on their call-for-action list for social change. The swell of NBA arenas serving as polling and voting centers is now at 16, with the Bucks announcing plans to transform Fiserv Forum and the Pistons are donating their practice facility. Others are in progress.

But, there’s more: Other sports leagues are considering using football or baseball stadiums, and so this has become a movement within a movement. There are roughly 22 arenas and stadiums committed so far, and that’s a fluid number.

Chris Paul, president of the National Basketball Players Association, said: “One of the things we talked about as players is voting. Voting is something we’re passionate about. We want all the NBA arenas to be polling sites. This is huge. For different cities that may not be able to do their arenas, maybe their practice facilities.”

The hope, of course, is for turnout at these arenas to be … a sellout crowd with standing-room only.

“I’d always been appalled that `American Idol’ had more voters than our presidency,” Koonin said.

The pandemic actually made this possible. Normally, arenas would be occupied the first Tuesday in November, especially if they’re shared with hockey teams. Obviously the NBA and NHL pushed forward the start of their 2020-21 seasons well into winter, leaving those buildings dark, since all events, including concerts, were wiped out.

The idea for the polling centers also caught fire among players because of their distaste for the current White House administration, which has never honored an NBA champion and whose policies are not embraced by the league or players.

There’s a shared desire, then, to motivate young people and those who normally don’t vote to understand the urgency and get to the polls in greater numbers. Players don’t come right out and say it, but they want a change in the White House.

The need for a smoother voting system is dire in Georgia, charged in the recent past with voter suppression and a state that experienced chaos and national embarrassment during the state primary months ago. There were long lines at sites just to vote — some stretching for hours — and also a spotty high-tech voting system, a situation all made complicated by the pandemic. Fulton County, home to Atlanta and the state’s most populous county, struggled to process a flood of absentee ballots and hastily arranged to cover a shortage of poll workers mere days before in-person voting.

That was yet another reason Koonin pressed on. Not only did he and the Hawks propose the arena for this fall, but will staff it to help alleviate any snags or headaches.

“Our employees are going to work the polls,” Koonin said. “They’re young, digitally savvy, bringing high energy. We have incredible connectivity in our building; we were voted best technology in the NBA. We’re in the large crowd business, too. It’s what we do.”

Koonin was busy with Zoom conferences last week when he received word about the NBA players adopting his idea and demanding that their teams and cities make it mandatory. Milwaukee, home of the Bucks, who staged a one-game walkout after a police shooting in nearby Kenosha, signed up early, so did Detroit. And then came a rush: Sacramento, LA, Charlotte, etc. Koonin was floored.

“It was a very nice feeling that an idea created had enough traction that people think it makes sense in their market,” he said. “It was like, `Whoa.’ To be honest, it’s amazing this hasn’t been done before.”

Koonin fielded calls from other CEOs, arena managers and team governors about the magnitude and scope of arena transformation, such as cost, technology needed, equipment, staffing and also how to ensure safety during a pandemic. Should masks be required?

If our players want to come down and work the polls, and more than one has reached out, then we will train them. But it’s not going to be a side show.”

Atlanta Hawks CEO Steve Koonin

Since these teams are competitive by nature, Koonin playfully engaged the Clippers and Warriors in a contest to see which arena registers the most voters. The winner will be awarded the John Lewis Good Trouble Cup, honoring the late Civil Rights leader and congressman, and the champion gets to keep the cup until the next election.

Koonin spent the last few weeks trying to envision the scenario at State Farm Arena this fall and how it can roust citizens: Should the team stores be open, or pizza be served or a DJ spin music?

In the end: “What we decided to be was a library on steroids. This is a patriotic duty. We think of ourselves as election central. We’ll have votes coming and and the results tabulated in the back of our arena. I’m so optimistic. People are talking about this. There’s a lot of awareness. We’re going to make sure we’re staffed and ready for any and everything.”

How about using some of the Hawks as an incentive to get people in the building? Imagine the line wrapping around the block in L.A. and Brooklyn should LeBron or Kevin Durant serve as election hosts?

“If our players want to come down and work the polls, and more than one has reached out, then we will train them,” said Koonin. “But it’s not going to be a side show.”

Regarding NBA players, Koonin said they should walk the walk regarding the election. Chris Paul recently made sure every player on the Thunder was registered to vote.

“I think every player on every team needs to be registered to vote for credibility,” Koonin said.

The importance of attracting young voters is the core of the NBA’s efforts. It’s a group that traditionally takes a pass at the polls, although given the social unrest and dissatisfaction with the current President in some corners, this could change in two months.

“People don’t think their vote matters,” Koonin said. “The problem is when you get a lot of people feeling the same way and millions don’t vote, then you’re right, it doesn’t matter. What we’re trying to do with this is say, hey, there’s no excuses. And make it cool. I’m hopeful both young and old and people who haven’t voted will come out and exercise that right.”

In a strange way, a return to health normalcy after this election would mean arenas and stadiums will get fans and the event schedule will begin to refill. Suddenly, those places won’t have room for the polls anymore in future elections.

“Or maybe the NBA doesn’t play on that day,” said Koonin, “and every building hosts something and it becomes a national holiday. Maybe we keep enforcing how important this is.”

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Shaun Powell has covered the NBA for more than 25 years. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter .

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