For a sports fan in any other city, the resurgence of a team like the New Orleans Hornets would seem like a dream. They're one of the youngest teams in the NBA, yet, at 36-15, have the best record in the fiercely competitive Western Conference. They can light up the scoreboard the Bees average over 100 points per game and in crunch time, bear down to play blue-collar defense. They feature an explosive, 6-ft. point guard, Chris Paul, who throws teardrop passes through traffic, buries outside shots with ease, and can score amongst the tall guys down low. He's a legitimate MVP candidate, and a nice guy to boot.
Even better, no one saw this coming; last year, the Hornets didn't even have a winning record, and for much of the two previous seasons, in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, they played most of their games in Oklahoma City.
With such an attractive package and compelling storyline, Big Easy fans should be toasting the team on Bourbon Street. After all, the city has long been starving for a winning pro sports team, and could still use a psychic lift post-Katrina. The NFL's Saints have tasted some recent success, but they play only eight home games each season, drawing fans from all over the football-crazed state. But as the city prepares to host the league's All-Star Game festivities this weekend, many people are wondering if the Hornets can survive much longer in New Orleans. "Look, it was a difficult market before the hurricane, there's no secret about that," says Sal Galatioto, president of Galatioto Sports Partners, an investment bank. "After, it's that much more problematic."
Which perhaps explains why, in spite of the team's surprising start, there's very little buzz at the Hornets' hive. The team is averaging a dismal 12,645 fans per game, the second worst attendance figure in the NBA (only the Indiana Pacers have drawn fewer fans). A cable dispute between Cox Communications, which has exclusive rights to broadcast Hornets games, and Charter Communications, the cable provider for about 225,000 residents in suburban St. Tammany Parish, left many affluent fans unable to watch their team. To add to the Hornets' hard luck, the cash-strapped team was set to receive a much-needed $47 million loan from Societe Generale, the French bank that employed a rogue trader who just cost the firm a cool $7 billion. The bank has shut down its U.S. sports lending practice, though Hornets president Hugh Weber insists Societe Generale assured him the deal will go through.
You certainly can't blame the players for any of these problems. Power forward David West stepped up his scoring, and made his first All-Star team. Center Tyson Chandler, long lambasted for being seven feet of soft, has emerged as one of the best rebounders in the NBA. Sharpshooting Serbian Peja Stojakovic is back from injuries and draining three-pointers every night. However, the Hornets wouldn't sting a thing without Paul. In just his third year in the NBA, Paul is averaging a career-high 20.5 points and 10.8 assists per game, while hitting a career best 48% of his shots from the field. "I used to think, 'I have to make this, I have to make this,'" he says. "I'm a lot more relaxed. I know where my shots are going to come from in the game."
Paul is an ideal face for the franchise. The affable North Carolina native has given money to a New Orleans school, helped raise funds to rebuild homes, and often visits ravaged parts of the city in his off-hours. "He's just like anybody would want their child to be," says Hornets owner George Shinn.
But marketing any business, including the Hornets, in a post-Katrina New Orleans faces challenges. New Orleans was already the second-smallest NBA market before the storm; now, with 600,000 TV households in the metropolitan area, it's the smallest. About 300,000 people live within the city, just 66% of the pre-Katrina population of 455,000, and the local economy still hasn't rebounded.
Making the situation worse is that the Hornets have never really fit in with a town that already lost one sad hoops franchise, the New Orleans Jazz, to Utah almost 30 years ago. The team slipped into New Orleans in 2002, when co-owners Shinn and Ray Wooldridge moved the team from Charlotte after years of fighting the city for a new arena (in early 2005, Shinn bought Wooldridge's stake in the franchise). The team struggled to draw fans in the Crescent City, and after just three seasons Katrina forced the Hornets to fly off to Oklahoma City. The Bees returned to town this past summer, but the roller coaster had crushed the team's already shaky connection with the city.
"At the small market level, you need a kind of management intensity over a period of years to make it work," says NBA commissioner David Stern. He points to San Antonio, Portland and Utah as prime examples. "The combination of split ownership that moved the team there, the circumstances of Katrina, and the difficulty, in a big hurry, of attracting droves of talent to relocate to New Orleans it's not a constructive circumstance for the growth of a franchise."
Hornets staffers also blame football for the team's slow start. They started selling tickets as the Saints kicked off a season that carried Super Bowl expectations (alas, they didn't even make the playoffs). Plus, up in Baton Rouge, Louisiana State University began a march to the national championship. "Our attendance is reflective of that circumstance," says Hugh Weber, the Hornets' president. "Football is a way of life here."
He may have a point. Before the college football national championship game on Jan. 7, which was played in New Orleans and featured LSU, the Hornets averaged 11,871 fans. Since then, they've averaged 13,806, and they actually had a sellout crowd of 17,230 last weekend against the Memphis Grizzlies, not exactly a major out-of-town draw.
To some observers, football is a lame excuse for the team's poor marketing efforts. "No one in our city seems to know about them," says Joe Brock, a native New Orleanian who is part owner of a local technology firm. "You go to the game and look around and wonder, 'why aren't there more people who know about this?'"
In January, billionaire Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban echoed that sentiment, showing little sympathy for the Hornets' struggles. "Somebody's got to get off their ass and sell tickets," he said. "They've got the best record in the Western Conference, and they can't get people to come? That's not New Orleans, that's effort." Shinn called Cuban to tell him he was "very insulted" by the remarks, and in an e-mail interview with TIME, Cuban insisted he wasn't trying to "insult" Shinn and offered his early experience with the floundering Mavericks as a blueprint; "In the same situation with the Mavs, I increased the sales force from 5 to 40," he says. "It's a numbers game. The more feet on the street, the more tickets sold."
Regardless of its intent, Shinn rejects the criticism. "It's easier to do a good job when you're in a huge market, and you've got a lot of money," he says. "I'm not criticizing my partners, but I don't think there's another owner in the NBA that can make this work."
The Hornets insist they are trying. Weber points to the dozens of picnics and cocktail parties to which the team has flocked, a grassroots effort to connect with fans on the ground. The prices are relatively fan-friendly: the average Hornets ticket costs $31, just 60% of the NBA league average of $51.
Under a new arena lease with the state, the team must average 14,753 in paid attendance for regular season games from Dec. 1, 2007, through the end of the 2009 season. If the Hornets miss that threshold, the team has an option to leave New Orleans for a more attractive market there are plenty, including St. Louis and Seattle, which will likely lose the Sonics though it will cost Shinn a $100 million penalty.
So is Shinn planning his escape? "I'm already hearing that," he says. "My goal is to make this thing work. I can't work any miracles, I just can't do that. People just have to take my word for it." The Hornets have moved four times in the last six years; Shinn insists he wouldn't relish more U-Hauls. "I'm 66, I'm tired of moving." But if more residents of the Big Easy don't start making the move to see the Hornets, he may have to start packing again.
- With reporting by Russell McCulley/New Orleans