Approaching Thanksgiving 2007, where are we? The following video with thanks to Jimmy Durante pretty much gives the visual picture … click the Play button to run the short flash file.

THE HORNETS. Notwithstanding significant historical factors and a fair amount of national press (and discounting “local” sentiment from both Oklahoma City and New Orleans as having too much bias for outsiders to take either of them very seriously), the Hornets returned to New Orleans after a two-season stint in Oklahoma City.

By “historical factors,” I’m talking about the objective facts about the prior 3-year history of the Hornets in New Orleans and their 2-year history here. I’m talking about (a) corporate sponsors and (b) fan support, people who buy tickets and put their butts in the seats. Minimal corporate sponsors supported the Hornets in New Orleans but corporate support in Oklahoma City took the nation by surprise. OK, OK, but what about the fans? The 3 year history in New Orleans saw the team ranked at the bottom of NBA attendance … average attendance in Oklahoma City games alone (excluding non-Oklahoma City “home” games) placed Oklahoma City at 9th and 15th of the 30 NBA teams and 30 of the Oklahoma City games were sellouts in the 19,164 capacity Ford Center. A “snapshot” of attendance history looks like this:

Season Paid Attendance NBA Rank
2002-03 in New Orleans 15,632 19th of 29
2003-04 in New Orleans 14,332 29th of 30
2004-05 in New Orleans 14,221 30th of 30
2005-06 in Okc 18,718 9th of 30
2006-07 in Okc 17,954 15th of 30

The New Orleans 3 year average was 14,728 and Oklahoma City’s 2 year average was 18,336. Oklahoma City’s season ticket sales in the 2nd year were around 12,000.

But, two historical factors were against Oklahoma City: (1) A New Orleans lease which doesn’t expire until 2011, and (2) Hurricane Katrina and the sympathy it engendered for the Hornets return, notwithstanding Hornets owner George Shinn’s flirtations with Oklahoma City businessmen and in the media about possibly keeping the team here.

So, return they did but not without leaving Oklahoma City with lots of “new” sensations and experiences this city had not earlier known.

But, what’s the prognosis in New Orleans? Might the Hornets eventually return, particularly if Seattle and Washington State gets its collective act together in time to keep the Sonics in the Puget Sound area?

Many expected that New Orleans would welcome the Hornets back with celebrating fans flocking to the revamped New Orleans Arena, particularly during the early months of their return, and particularly since the NBA has worked hard at making the return successful. While that success may yet occur, thus far it has not happened. After 3 home games, nothing close to a sellout (which would be around 17,200, using ESPN attendance statistics as the guide … Times-Picayune reporter John DeShazier puts the number at 17,956). Paid attendance for the 1st home game against Sacramento was 15,188. Some said it was because the game was on a Wednesday. Paid attendance for the 2nd home game against Portland on a Friday was 9,817 … reports are that actual attendance was more like 4,000. Some said that a conflict with Halloween and a non-sexy opponent combined to produce the lowest paid attendance game in New Orleans Hornets history. Surely the 3rd game would be the charm … on a Friday against the NBA reigning champs, the San Antonio Spurs. But, the charm was not to be had … paid attendance was 15,207, more than 2,000 shy of a sellout. The Hornets executive in charge of ticket sales just resigned after garnering less than 7,000 season ticket sales. John DeShazier has been compelled to write two articles imploring fans to support the team. See his November 3 article and his November 9 article. Among other things, DeShazier said,

If New Orleans is, indeed, an NBA city, it’s past time we stopped flapping gums about how much we love the game and started buying tickets, time we stopped reflecting on what was or wasn’t said and worn on jerseys and patches when the team was in OKC and started acting like this is a team that likely will win 45 games and reach the playoffs.
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New Orleans and its surrounding parishes hasn’t even had time for the new to wear off these Hornets, doesn’t have the cop-out of being able to say it has had the past two seasons to witness and enjoy their growth. If New Orleans loves them, it ought to show it.

If not, it’s less than sporting to demand that the franchise hold up its part of the deal (honor its lease agreement and produce a competitive, playoff-level team) without being willing to hold up ours (less than 7,000 season tickets sold in the 17,956-seat Arena).

Them’s pretty tough words for a New Orleans homer to say … but will his advice be heeded, or will the more sagacious wisdom of those whose mantra is, “Attendance doesn’t matter,” win the New Orleans day? Time will tell, and the clock is ticking. ED NOTE: On Tuesday, November 14, the Hornets hosted Philadelphia in New Orleans 4th home game of the season. Results: (1) A win and the Hornets at 7-2 have now tied their best 9 game start; (2) Paid attendance was 8,302 and the Hornets retake last place in league attendance, having now broken their own “low attendance” record twice this season. Their next home game, Monday v. Orlando, may set another such record.

THE SONICS. Quite a different situation presents itself with the Seattle SuperSonics. After a few years of non-successful negotiations with Seattle to produce a financial situation which would make owning the team profitable, Howard Schultz’s sale of the 40-year-old Sonics (& Storm) to Oklahoma City businessmen was announced on July 18, 2006. Clay Bennett, the group’s chair and usual spokesperson (see this August 23 Seattle Times article for co-owner Aubrey McClendon’s $250K gaffe concerning the ownership group’s intentions), told Washingtonians on that day that (1) the group wanted to keep the team in the area, (2) a new facility other than the Key Arena would be needed for that to happen, and (3) that such a deal would need to be agreed to by October 31, 2007, about 18 months later. See my post last summer for more about that.

Seattle’s circumstances are much different than those in New Orleans. Unlike New Orleans, fan support is not lacking in Seattle. Seattle is a much larger market than Oklahoma City while New Orleans, a small market to begin with, is struggling to overcome the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Seattle has three major league teams, New Orleans two, and, of course, Oklahoma City has none at all.

In Seattle, coming up with a profitable venue for the team is the issue, it being maintained for quite some time that the Key Arena and the contract agreed to by previous owners rendered it impossible for the owners of the Sonics to avoid substantial economic losses on an annual basis.

The 18 months since July 2006 have come and gone and no new arena deal has even come close to happening. Instead, Seattle citizens, led by Chris Van Dyk, passed “Proposition 91” which effectively makes it impossible that Seattle help fund any new arena. See my earlier post about that. That happening, Mr. Bennett’s group sought help from the Washington legislature, they putting forth a plan which would cost $500M for a new arena complex in the Renton area … but, in the end, the Washington legislature refused to even allow Bennett’s proposal to be put to a vote of the people, notwithstanding the efforts of Margarita Prentice who championed the effort in the legislature. About Bennett’s efforts, an August 14 Oklahoman article quotes her as saying,

“Clay Bennett could have had an agreement, and they would have been here,” Prentice said. “And there was a sliver of hope, and I don’t know if it’s all gone now. But Clay Bennett went to great lengths to try to reach an agreement. And he agreed to a lot of things that he was never even given the chance to present to the legislature. He and I know that’s true.”

Time passed but nothing of substance occurred until September when Bennett’s group filed an arbitration request to assess a buy-out of the Key Arena lease which runs through the 2009-2010 season — such a thing would need to occur whether the Sonics would move to Renton or to Oklahoma City before the end of the lease term. Seattle rejoined with litigation in state court for a declaratory judgment that the specific performance provisions in the lease were binding and Bennett’s group obtained removal of that litigation to federal court. On October 29, the federal judge ruled that the issues presented were not subject to the arbitration provisions in the lease and that all issues, including the city’s demand for specific performance and/or whether a buy-out of the lease was legally possible and, if so, how much the cost would be, are pending before the federal court.

The clock kept on ticking. A few weeks before Mr. Bennett’s October 31 “deadline” to have a new arena deal in place, he amended what he’d said earlier (about filing to relocate on November 1 were that not to happen) to not conflict with the team’s November 1 season-opening game. But, on Friday, November 2, the Sonics owners applied to the NBA to relocate the teams (although that may be different for the Storm) to Oklahoma City at the earliest of 3 possible dates: (a) the expiration of the Seattle lease, (b) the date determined in the pending litigation, or (c) the date that possible negotiations with Seattle might produce.

And, that’s where it’s at. According to a November 3 Oklahoman article,

Now that Sonics chairman Clay Bennett has filed for relocation to Oklahoma City, the NBA can begin the process. Here’s how it works:

NBA Commissioner David Stern will soon appoint a relocation committee of no less than five governors within 10 days of receiving Bennett’s application.

Stern has 120 days from the date he receives the application to make a recommendation to the appointed board.

The board, which determines the amount of a relocation fee, will then vote on the move no sooner than seven days and no later than 30 days after the recommendation is made. A simple majority vote is needed to allow a franchise to relocate.

In the meantime, David Stern was in town a couple of days ago, November 8, to present Clay Bennett for induction into the Oklahoma Hall of Fame.


While here, and earlier the same day in Phoenix, Mr. Stern was complimentary of the manner in which Bennett’s group had pursued new arena options in Washington and had nothing but uncomplimentary words about the leadership in Seattle and Washington. All that being true, both Clay Bennett’s remarks and those of the Commissioner leave a crack in the door for Washington to present a proposal for a new arena before the NBA Relocation Committee reaches its decision by sometime in March 2008. Mayor Mick Cornett has expressed cautious optimism but also reminds his constituents that Oklahoma City’s hopes for landing the Sonics, or any other NBA team, are far from being accomplished.

During this hiatus, a banal and idiotic war of words persists, easily readable in lots of places (see this November 11 Seattle Times article for more about that) and trash-talkers are having the time of their lives. Clay Bennett is the usual object of the venom, but Oklahoma City gets it share of ridicule including remarks from presumably well educated folk who should know better. This dummy didn’t even know that the Hornets were in Oklahoma City for two seasons (not one as he said) before he took his pen and waxed elegantly (he thought) at MSNBC on November 9 about the chances for an NBA team to succeed here:

Besides, if the team leaves for Oklahoma City, as seems inevitable, think of the fun Seattle can have watching the franchise wither and die in that city, as if inevitable. If Seattle can’t support a team, how is Oklahoma City going to do it? And don’t tell me they successfully hosted the Hornets last year – that’s a novelty deal for one year. Wait until the team plays mediocre basketball at New York City ticket prices for a few years and then tell me what a great market it is.

He must be well-informed, right? He has a pen, doesn’t he? Putting up with morons is apparently an NBA requirement, so “putting up” we will. We’ve endured much worse.

The ball remains in Washington’s court, even if for not much longer.

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