Posted Oct 4 2011 2:08PM
There are still plenty of questions about the 2011-12 NBA season, thanks to the labor impasse. Yet there are fewer uncertainties surrounding the New Orleans Hornets than there have been in years.
Seven months ago, they were a franchise striving to hit specific attendance levels to avoid triggering a clause in their arena lease that would let them pack up and leave town. Now the Hornets are enjoying the kind of successful offseason that could allow them to put down long-term roots.
"Strange as it may sound, we had to get off the basketball part, relating to the wins and losses and how you're doing in the standings," said team president Hugh Weber. "What we've concentrated on is emphasizing the economic and the cultural impact that an NBA franchise can have on the community.
"It definitely helped to play maybe a little bit over our heads at the end of last season to get some excitement and interest going again. But the challenge and our goal was when we stopped playing to keep the momentum going."
The Hornets have done that, Weber says, with a grass-roots campaign called "I'm In" that means less about being in the playoffs every season than being on the inside of an entity that can help re-establish New Orleans as a thriving, growing city as the recovery from Hurricane Katrina continues.
The team also embarked on a summer-long 100-events-in-100-days promotional campaign that was designed to make a direct connection with the city and has been wildly successful. Since June, the Hornets have provided food and beverages and a few members of the staff -- general manager Dell Demps, coach Monty Williams, Weber -- to meet at offices, churches and home with anyone who could round up groups of friends.
"Yes, we have been able to use those events to sell tickets," Weber said. "But the most important thing we're doing is developing a relationship with people. Some of them might have gone to Hornets games before. Maybe some didn't. Some might not even have known who we are. But I think when you get a chance to stand maybe with a glass of wine and talk 1-on-1 to the head coach or the G.M., you can develop in people a sense of, 'This is my team. I know these guys.' If you can do that, then it becomes, 'This is my team' and that's the critical connection you need."
It was never going to be easy in the Big Easy. But six years ago, when the winds whirled, the storm surge hit and the levees broke, it turned what was already going to be a difficult sell -- the NBA's return to New Orleans -- into a daunting task.
The league stepped in to buy the franchise from its founder George Shinn last December when a proposed sale to former minority owner Gary Chouest fell through. At the time, New Orleans native Jac Sperling was appointed chairman and governor of the Hornets by NBA commissioner David Stern.
Due to a stipulation in their lease at New Orleans Arena that would allow the team to leave if attendance fell below an average of 14,735 over a two-year period, the Hornets needed a strong push to sell tickets in February to get past that threshold.
But now when many other NBA teams are struggling just to maintain interest during the lockout, the Hornets are surging. Their season ticket base has jumped from roughly 6,600 last season to more than 9,000 and the organization now has its sights set on reaching the 10,000 mark. A recently completed deal with Chevron gives them five sponsors for next season at the $1 million level, a franchise high.
The Hornets are currently working on a new local television contract and have had talks with Mayor Mitch Landrieu's office about a new arena lease that would go past the current expiration date of 2014.
Most important, the dramatic turnaround seems to be accomplishing the league's stated goal of finding local ownership that would keep the Hornets in New Orleans.
"We didn't run out immediately try to attract buyers last December," Weber said. "We wanted to get our financial house in order, then see how things developed. I think the asset is on the rise."
When the league first took over the franchise, calls came from all over the country from potential buyers who were primarily looking to take the team to a new city. Now the direction of those calls has changed.
"I think when the commissioner, in his statement when the team was purchased in December, he wanted to take his time," Sperling told the New Orleans Times-Picayune. "He wanted to make sure the financial situation of the Hornets was turned around. Then he was going to make it more attractive for a local buyer to buy it, then he was going to find a buyer.
"We've taken our time. We have improved the financial situation of the team, and now we're getting ready to have serious dialogs. We haven't had them yet, we've had discussions. But we're getting ready to have serious dialogs with potential buyers.
"You can say there are people who live here who are potential buyers, and there are people who don't live here who are potential buyers to keep the team here."
The population of the city, about 485,000 pre-Katrina, has climbed back to just over 350,000, according to official estimates. At the same time, the makeup of the population has changed. The level of education is higher, income is higher.
"The mayor likes to say the city is at an inflection point," Weber said. "We're no longer rebuilding. We're moving ahead to the next phase. It's time to double down. We're now on new ground. There are signs all over that New Orleans is changing."
None more obvious than the buzz coming from the Hornets.
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