Posted Dec 9 2010 2:26PM
Will there soon be an old saying about New Orleans? That it's a great place to visit but you wouldn't want your basketball team to live there?
Please be warned: The following isn't an indictment of the basketball fans in New Orleans, the city itself or the league. But any city lacking a geyser of corporate dollars and a massive amount of people with disposable income becomes a challenge for a second professional sports team.
It's mighty admirable for David Stern to make an earnest push to keep the team in New Orleans, and for the league owners to provide a safety net for the Hornets, who were run into the ground by George Shinn. Yes, everyone will say and do right by New Orleans, especially in the wake of Katrina. But business is business, and political correctness and sympathy can only go so far. That's why it's only natural to feel a bit queasy about the Big Easy right now, as the city looks for an owner who's willing to assume control of a money-bleeding team.
How much patience does the NBA have in this process? Two years? Three? The league might wind up holding the bag for quite some time if the goal is to sell to an owner committed to keeping the Hornets in town, rather than to one who wants to move them. This doesn't bode well for the future of the Hornets, to say nothing of Chris Paul's future with the Hornets.
But the whims of the star point guard are suddenly secondary right now. The issue is what to do with a franchise that needed to be rescued from Shinn, that has a cash-flow issue, that plays in an arena that's only adequate and nothing more, that doesn't sell out the building and that is struggling to find a way to survive financially, post-Katrina. Was this due to bad ownership, or because of a bad fit in New Orleans, or both?
And that, in turn, morphs into an even larger issue: There aren't any other viable places to relocate to, unless the NBA decides to do business with Las Vegas, the last frontier, and make a deal with that devil.
How did it come to this? The Hornets were once an NBA success story, given birth in 1988 and immediately staked to a claim in the Carolinas, where a population and financial boom was developing. The end result: nightly sellouts in a 23,000-seat arena and Muggsy Bogues becoming a folk hero. But unrest lay underneath the rosy exterior. Shinn became involved in some nasty lawsuits, which didn't go over well in the Bible Belt, and soon found himself persona non grata. He fled to New Orleans, a haven for lost souls, and then Katrina hit. With basketball being Shinn's primary source of income, the financial sucker punch was swift, and to no surprise, the Hornets are bathing in red ink.
The NBA's expansion scorecard is a bit shakier today. Of the four-team wave (Heat, Hornets, Magic and Timberwolves) that joined the league the 1988-89 and 1989-90 seasons, only Orlando can be viewed as a smash hit.
Although the Heat won a championship, Miami isn't a passionate basketball town; attendance, even with a winning team, is hit and miss. Minnesota had some regular-season success during the Kevin Garnett era, but the times before and after have been lean.
The additions of the Grizzlies and Raptors in 1995-96 have been mixed, as Vancouver was an experiment gone wrong and the Grizzlies' relocation to Memphis has been a rocky one.
Bob Johnson, the owner of the Bobcats from their expansion season (2004-05) until last season, sold the Bobcats at a loss.
The Hornets are the exact opposite of the Thunder in Oklahoma City, which interestingly enough was the Hornets' temporary home during the Katrina crisis. It all comes back to Shinn and his refusal to sell for the good of the league and the Hornets, until he had no choice. He had opportunities before his franchise tanked. His best chance was in Charlotte, where there was still strong support for the team; the city would've built a new arena for a new owner, and there never would've been the need for the Bobcats. Instead, the Hornets went to New Orleans, where pro basketball failed before, where there never were any firm plans for an upgraded arena, where corporate dollars were scarce even before Katrina.
You could say Shinn is responsible for two of the league's weaker-performing franchises: his own, plus the Bobcats.
This isn't a great time to sell an NBA franchise. Not when companies are cutting back and the days of individual ownership are all but gone. The Warriors fetched a big price because the Bay Area market is flush with corporations and dot-com millionaires. Meanwhile, the Bobcats and Nets came at a discount, and the Pistons' sale remains in limbo.
Stern doesn't want the Hornets relocated, and viable landing spots are drying up anyway. The country is almost tapped out of vibrant markets with a thirst for pro basketball. Kansas City? St. Louis? It's questionable whether those medium-sized markets can support a third or fourth pro team. Louisville? Columbus? You could argue they're cut in the Oklahoma City mold, but nobody with deep pockets ever tried to lure a team to those places.
New Orleans? In a perfect world, the Hornets will be purchased by the anti-Shinn and stay put. Most likely, they'll leave reluctantly, within a few years, with their star point guard beating them to the door.
The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.
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