COMMENTARY | New Orleans Hornets owner Tom Benson has an impressive list of accomplishments in the Big Easy. He kept the Saints in New Orleans (twice), turned the team into winners, and even brought the Lombardi Trophy to New Orleans.
Now that he has taken on the job of turning around the Hornets, Benson may have a tougher task on his hands. Although he only needed a big checking account to keep the Hornets in New Orleans, Benson will need craft and guile to turn the Hornets into winners.
But even previous owner George Shinn had several winning seasons and playoff appearances in New Orleans. The 2007-08 season was particularly impressive with a 56-26 record, a Southwest Division title, and a playoff series win.
However, there is one pot of gold that neither George Shinn nor David Stern has found in New Orleans. Regardless of the team's record, no one has figured out how to improve the Hornets' attendance figures. Even in the halcyon days of 2007-08, the Hornets ranked 26th out of 30 NBA teams in attendance.
If Tom Benson thought he could simply boogie his way into the New Orleans Arena and all his Saints fans would follow him in like St. Patrick, he was sorely mistaken. Despite a long-term lease and the drafting of Anthony Davis, the 2012-13 Hornets are dead last in NBA attendance.
The only truly successful marketing campaign that the Hornets have had in New Orleans was the "I'm In" campaign for the 2011-12 season led by Jac Sperling. The attendance campaign accomplished its goal of selling over 10,000 season tickets and kept the Hornets in New Orleans. However, a poor season on the court led to paltry single-same ticket sales and the Hornets finished 25th in attendance.
One of the myths concerning the Saints is that they have always had great attendance numbers. After incredible attendance numbers in the early days of the franchise, attendance plummeted after the Saints left Tulane Stadium for the Superdome.
Even after Benson purchased the Saints and New Orleans began having winning seasons and playoff appearances under Jim Mora, it was a week-to-week waiting game to see if local blackouts would be lifted. The Saints even needed extensions to get home playoff games sold out in time to lift blackouts.
Still, the Saints have an advantage when it comes to marketing that the Hornets will never have. People in New Orleans view the Saints as a local tradition because the team started in the Big Easy. After spending 14 years in Charlotte, many people (local and national) still view the Hornets as Charlotte's team.
In addition to his desire for the Hornets' rebranding as the Pelicans to raise awareness about coastal erosion, Tom Benson must also be hoping that the name change will help attendance. Despite the weeping and gnashing of teeth by some over the Hornets' new name, this move could help NBA fans in New Orleans connect with their team.
Although Jac Sperling is no longer with the Hornets, Benson should learn something from his actions. Attendance will not improve without an intelligent marketing campaign and hard work. Benson needs to aggressively market the team's new local name, exciting young talent, and an outstanding fan experience in the New Orleans Arena to increase attendance.
Finally, nothing improves attendance more than consistent winning. After winning the Southwest Division, the Hornets had a losing record just two years later. Also, the worst-kept secret in New Orleans was that Chris Paul and David West would be leaving the Hornets via free agency if they weren't traded first.
When he became Hornets owner, Tom Benson said he expects the Hornets to be outstanding and if that couldn't happen, he didn't want to get involved. If he could get New Orleans into the top 10 in NBA attendance, that would be an even greater accomplishment.
Patrick Michael was born in New Orleans and currently resides in the Big Easy. Patrick has followed the Hornets since they moved to New Orleans and has covered the team since 2010. He was in attendance the night the Hornets were one win away from the Western Conference Finals. Follow Patrick Michael on Twitter at patmichael84.
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