After 16 months as a ward of the NBA, the New Orleans Hornets finally have a new owner.
NBA Commissioner David Stern has said over and over again in recent months (and most recently, about two weeks ago) that the league was "close" to finding a long-term owner for the Hornets. After entertaining multiple potential local owners last fall, it appears that the league has found its man — Tom Benson, the owner of the NFL's New Orleans Saints. Benson reportedly reached a tentative agreement to buy the team on Friday morning and could be officially announced as the Hornets' new owner on Friday afternoon following his approval by the NBA's Board of Governors, now in its second day of meetings at the St. Regis Hotel in New York City.
UPDATE: The Saints just confirmed on Twitter that Benson is officially the Hornets' new owner.
In addition to Benson's bid for the team, according to Jimmy Smith of the New Orleans Times-Picayune, the board was also considering an offer from a prospective ownership group "headed by California swimwear manufacturer Raj Bhathal and former [Hornets] minority owner Gary Chouest." That group also included Larry Benson, Tom Benson's brother, according to WVUE-TV, which Tom Benson also owns.
"All signs are pointing to Benson becoming the owner, and he will own 100 percent of the team," Smith wrote. "He won't be part of an ownership group."
David Aldridge of NBA.com reported Friday that Benson will pay $338 million for the Hornets. That's in the ballpark of the $340 million that the NBA's been asking for the franchise from its bidders, representing a modest profit over the $318 million the league reportedly paid when it took the team over from George Shinn back in December 2010. As Smith noted in the Times-Picayune, it's also "well in excess of the $285 million" valuation that Forbes magazine recently placed on the Hornets, a figure ranking it as the seventh-least valuable franchise in the NBA.
The news follows an agreement reached last month to extend the Hornets' lease on the New Orleans Arena by 10 years, keeping the team in New Orleans through 2024 while the league continued to look for a long-term owner. Add that to an interesting point raised by Hornets fan Mason Ginsberg on Twitter — that NFL cross-ownership rules prohibit NFL owners from owning sports franchises in markets occupied by other NFL teams, limiting the number of available markets to which Benson could theoretically move the Hornets if he so chose — and this could be a recipe for keeping the Hornets in the Bayou for the foreseeable future. Considering Benson's flirtation with moving the Saints to San Antonio in the early 2000s if the state of Louisiana didn't pony up, and again after Hurricane Katrina ravaged the region, that's a pretty important point for Hornets fans who want to see their team stay put.
Benson recently found himself in serious hot water with the NFL after an investigation uncovered that the Saints maintained a "bounty" system, funded largely by players, that offered financial rewards for tackles that injured opposing players and led to their removal from games. The NFL fined the Saints $500,000 (the heaviest fine possible under the league's constitution) and stripped their 2012 and 2013 second-round draft picks as punishment for the program. Commissioner Roger Goodell also suspended former Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams indefinitely, head coach Sean Payton for the entire 2012 season, general manager Mickey Loomis for the season's first eight games, and assistant (and now interim head coach) Joe Vitt for the first six games. The league largely cleared Benson of wrongdoing in the matter, noting that Saints ownership — read: Benson — "was unaware of the bounty program, and strongly disapproved of it and directed that it be discontinued once it was disclosed."
With ownership issues roiling, the Hornets mounted a strong 2010-11 campaign, finishing 46-36 under first-year head coach Monty Williams and pushing the Los Angeles Lakers to six games in a first-round playoff series behind the unmitigated brilliance of point guard Chris Paul. This season, however, has been a disaster from the start, from the circus surrounding the league-orchestrated trade of Paul through shooting guard Eric Gordon's repeated injury issues and just about everything else associated with the team. The Hornets are now limping to the season's finish with a 16-42 record, the third-worst mark in the NBA, and with plenty of question marks on their roster going forward, the future of general manager Dell Demps' team on the court remains very much uncertain.
But at least they won't be run by David Stern, Stu Jackson, Jac Sperling and the rest of the NBA crew anymore. The Hornets will determine their own fate, as they couldn't during the Paul fiasco. With two likely lottery picks coming up in a deep 2012 draft, some financial flexibility in the offing (especially if they can move their largest remaining contract, belonging to center Emeka Okafor, either in trade or by using the new CBA's amnesty clause), a smart coach and GM at the helm and, at long last, the prospect of some stability in the weeks and months ahead, it's hard not to look at this as a good day in the history of the New Orleans Hornets.
So have some fun tonight, New Orleans. (Not like you need any help from us figuring out how to do that.)
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