On the Hardwood: Atlanta Hawks Honor Legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. in First of Season-Long ‘Unity Nights’

These theme nights are centered around community, positive social change

The doldrums of 2020 may be in the past, but 2021 is still presenting challenges to in-venue production teams. Now out of the Orlando bubble, NBA organizations are hosting games in their home arenas and navigating the continuing difficulties of the pandemic. Like SVG’s At the Ballpark and On the Gridiron series, On the Hardwood will take a look the hardships, creative ideas, and teamwork of NBA franchises.

The Hawks have ramped up their videoboard content since the start of the season.

Martin Luther King Jr.’s passion for Civil Rights and racial equality has become a beacon of perseverance and hope around the world, but in Atlanta, he means so much more than that. The Atlanta Hawks are celebrating MLK Day with the first of many “Unity Nights” that spotlight the true meaning of community, love of thy neighbor, and the character of the city’s most venerated icon.

“This year’s MLK game will be celebrated differently at State Farm Arena due to the COVID world we’re all living in, but because of the MLK jersey and court, we feel like this is the most meaningful tribute to his honor that we’ve ever done here in Atlanta,” says Joe Abercrombie, SVP, live entertainment and production, Atlanta Hawks. “It’s truly something special, and we can’t wait for our fans and the nation to see both in action.”


Celebrating the City’s Roots: Unity Nights To Feature MLK-Themed Content

Martin Luther King Jr. is always on the mind of the citizens of Atlanta, but the Hawks made it a point to highlight the activist’s impact on the city during the offseason. When the team unveiled its new MLK City Edition uniforms, it was the first time that an individual’s initials were stitched on an official on-court jersey. As the team debuts these uniforms, the production team is taking this theme an extra step further by placing MLK at the center of tonight’s MLK Day Game Presented by Chase.

“We’ll have a special MLK open video that we’ll use,” says Drew Frank, manager, game operations, Atlanta Hawks. “During each of these different games, we’ll have some vignettes where the players will talk about MLK’s impact on them personally and also on the world.”

Plexiglass dividers have been installed in the control room.

Producing these live and prepackaged segments have come with its fair share of challenges related to the COVID-19 pandemic. Due to restrictions on who is allowed into the building — full-time staff and friends/family of players are permitted — the crew is getting creative by capturing some of these traditions digitally, including the singing of the National Anthem and starting lineup by a choir.

“In a COVID world, we’re trying to adjust while maintaining some of the same traditions that we’ve done in the past,” says Andre Hickman, director of live programming, Atlanta Hawks. “In the past, they’ve rehearsed the players’ names since we normally don’t get the starting lineup until 15 minutes before the game. This year, we’ll record them saying their names, and when we get the starting lineup, we’ll take clips and marry them in real time to the music that’s playing in the background. This is the first time that we’ll doing it in this manner, but we have a plan to executing this correctly.”

Aside from these production staples, the in-venue experience and content shown on the linear broadcast is drawing inspiration from the City Edition jerseys and court. Developed by Vice President of Brand Creative Shirley Zhang and her team, the stained-glass illustrated on both the jersey and court will lead the aesthetic look of the on-air and videoboard content.

The design of the court and uniforms are really instrumental to how we’re framing our look and feel for these Unity Night games,” continues Hickman. “We’re taking those elements of  stained-glass and the MLK lettering to bring the arena to life.”

At-Home Connection: Franchise Aims to Produce Pregame Live Stream

KK Salmonsen (left) and Brett McNeill (right) handle crowd noise.

While at home, the Hawks made an effort to interact with their fans during the 2020 NBA Draft with a live streamed virtual Draft party back in November. Since these fans are still watching games on their television sets, the organization is looking to up this connection by continuously working with their television partners, including Fox Sports Southeast, and digital team to live stream a pregame show from the arena.

“For a long time, the NBA has said that teams can do some pregame live streaming while the players are on the court,” says Abercrombie. “We’ve wanted to take advantage of that for a while, and I think this is the opportunity to do it.”

Along with the videoboard show and surrounding content, this live stream could be another chance to spread the message of MLK and highlight the jerseys that the players are wearing on the floor. With fans stuck in their living rooms, it could also be used to bring the complete fan experience back home since they’re deprived of those pregame festivities.

“We’ll be able to focus [the pregame] around our Unity Nights with the MLK jerseys and court,” he adds. “I don’t think that we’re going to be doing a lot of in-game live streams, but as far as a pregame show, we are definitely working towards doing that.”

In-Venue Audio: Developing the Fabricated Soundscape

Frank, in the Hawks mask, works from his courtside position.

Fans are the ones who bring the energy every single night, but without them, the production team is responsible for generating that noise up in the control room. At its core, the workflow is to provide an enticing broadcast for fans at home as well as pump up the volume for the players on the floor.

“Ultimately, the challenge is to take an NBA game at State Farm Arena, with very few fans in attendance, and create an atmosphere that is conducive to an enjoyable broadcast experience, as well as supportive of home court advantage for our players,” says Abercrombie. “The best feedback we can get is that there was real energy in the building, and at times, [players] forgot the fact that they were in an empty arena.”

The same operation via Firehouse Productions was used in the bubble in Orlando, but for teams like the Hawks who didn’t qualify for postseason play, their operators were put on a crash course to learn the equipment prior to the first regular season game. When these operators began getting a hang of it, members in the control like Senior Manager of Event Production Rob Calia, forgot that fans weren’t in the seats and bought into its authenticity.

“It was a huge challenge to take on that role because [the NBA] was using it in the bubble and we didn’t get a whole lot of training for it,” he says. “Firehouse provided all of the equipment, so once we got it installed, we started training right away. I spoke with our operators, who have been doing a great job, and there was a couple of times where we were down big early in the game and when we came back to take the lead, the crowd noise sounded legit. If I didn’t know any better, I would have thought there were  thousands of people out there in the bowl. We’ve come a long way in a short amount of time.

Calia sits at the front bench in the control room.

In terms of audio, all 30 teams have leased the same equipment and the same soundtrack that is compiled of team-centric sounds from previous games in past seasons as well as noise from the popular NBA 2K video game. Since the teams have freedom to use as much or as little in-venue audio as they want, the Hawks want to create a homecourt environment that isn’t duplicated anywhere else in the league.

“Some teams are only pushing this out onto their broadcasts, so when our guys go on the road, it’s different from the experience in State Farm Arena,” says Hickman. “Some front offices opt out because they don’t see people in the building, but we enjoy it. It makes us feel comfortable because it brings a sense of normalcy.”

Having Some Fun: Crew Adds More Videoboard Elements With Each Passing Game

Despite today’s game having a boatload of content and theming, that wasn’t the case during the first few contests of the season. Like most teams, the crew needed to find their footing within an empty State Farm Arena and see what they could build on. The first bricks of the foundation were pretty simple and sweet.

For the first couple of games, we took it really easy by mostly filling [the game] with music and replays,” says Frank. “About halfway through the second game, we got a little bored and realized that this isn’t what we do.”

Gradually, the team in the control room became more comfortable and found a rhythm. Now, they have started to branch out a bit more with their ideas and are bringing back some entertainment activations that gave the Hawks the best overall gameday experience last season.

As Director of Live Programming, Hickman plays a vital role at State Farm Arena.

“We’ve been really trying to up our arsenal of different videos that we can play throughout the game,” he adds. “We don’t have a full database yet, but we keep adding more videos for each game. We’re also starting to look back at some of the different performances we’ve had, so we’re bringing out our ATL dancers and Harry the Hawk, so it doesn’t feel like it’s video after video.”On the audio front, Frank and the crew are playing with crowd noise in response to some prompts on the videoboard.

“In tight games, we’ll run a noise meter [on the screen] and work with our operators to increase the volume of the crowd as the meter goes up,” he continues. “We want to have some fun with it to have the energy build and make it feel like a Hawks game.”

The Ones Who Get It Done: Notable Names of Hawks’ Production Team

Led by young point guard Trae Young, veteran Rajon Rondo, and big man Clint Capela, the Hawks have an extremely exciting team. Similar to the squad on the floor, the production team is stacked with all-stars as well as notable role players. Along with Abercrombie, Calia, Frank, and Hickman, it’s a full team effort in the ATL.

“I think we have a great team but based on the current environment and what we’re trying to do, [Senior Manager of Brand Experience & Activation] KK Salmonsen and [Brand Experience Coordinator] Matt Hill are critical to our gameday production and crowd noise,” says Abercrombie. “From a technological standpoint, [Senior Manager of Video Integration] Matt Shafer has helped drive everything to the big videoboard and get LED exposure on the broadcast. We’ve all come together to get outside of our comfort zone, work in ways that we’ve never worked before, and push ourselves in areas that we needed to get better at.”

After today’s game vs. the Minnesota Timberwolves, the Hawks have announced three other Unity Nights in the first half of the season: Tuesday, Jan. 26 vs. the Los Angeles Clippers Presented by Emory Healthcare, Sunday, Feb. 6 vs. the Toronto Raptors, and Wednesday, Feb. 24 vs. the Boston Celtics on HBCU Night Presented by Chase.

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