COMMENTARY | With a new owner, a long-term lease agreement, and the first overall pick in the 2012 NBA draft, there has never been a better time to be a New Orleans Hornets fan. But the Hornets' first 10 years in New Orleans were anything but smooth. Poor attendance, Hurricane Katrina, and more than a year without an owner made the Hornets a prime candidate for relocation.
However, NBA commissioner David Stern stepped in and took over the Hornets until he found a new local owner. Despite fewer obstacles in their respective cities, Stern took no such action to save the Seattle Sonics and Sacramento Kings. Why did Stern keep the Hornets in New Orleans, but allowed the Sonics and Kings to relocate?
The Sonics left Seattle after owner Howard Schultz failed to obtain public funding for either $220 million of improvements to KeyArena or $500 million for a new arena. KeyArena underwent renovations in 1995 and despite its small seating capacity of just over 17,000, the Sonics usually ranked between 15th and 20th in NBA attendance prior to relocation concerns.
What I find most intriguing about the Sonics' relocation is that the franchise had a lease agreement to stay in KeyArena through 2010, which was never enforced. The Seattle City Council voted 8-0 to enforce the lease, but the NBA approved the sale to Clay Bennett knowing the Oklahoma City native would likely relocate the Sonics to his hometown. Bennett did so in 2008-09.
Indirectly, the Hornets are partially responsible for the Sonics' relocation to Oklahoma City. After Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans in 2005, the Hornets played most of the next two seasons in Oklahoma City. Strong ticket sales and enthusiastic fans showed David Stern that Oklahoma City was a viable NBA destination.
While the Sacramento Kings' relocation is not official, NBA insiders consider it a fait accompli. Like the situation in Seattle, the Kings' problems began with their home arena. But unlike in Seattle, the city of Sacramento addressed ownership's concerns on multiple occasions. In the end, the Maloof family seemed determined to sell the Kings and allow them to relocate.
Since the Sonics left Seattle, David Stern has taken a PR beating. Sources also indicate in reports that Stern is unhappy with the Maloof ownership group. The Kings' sale and relocation to Seattle solves both of these problems. The Maloofs will be out of the NBA and the Sonics will return to the NBA. Reportedly, the Kings will play two seasons in KeyArena before moving to the new $500 million arena that Howard Schultz never received.
Many casual NBA fans may not know that the NBA nearly returned to New Orleans in 1994. Only five years after their inception, Minnesota Timberwolves owners sold the team to New Orleans-based Top Rank. However, after concerns arose over the group's financial assets, the NBA voted down the relocation. Eventually, Glen Taylor purchased the Timberwolves and kept them in Minnesota.
Despite the setback, New Orleans worked tirelessly to secure an NBA team and when another arena conflict arose in Charlotte, Stern approved the Hornets' relocation to New Orleans. Unlike in the aforementioned relocations, owner George Shinn moved, but did not sell, his team. Without needing a local owner and the New Orleans Arena already in place, the Hornets relocated to New Orleans for the 2002-03 season.
From the beginning, the biggest complaint about the Hornets' tenure in New Orleans has been poor attendance. The Hornets have never finished higher than 19th in attendance while playing in New Orleans and they usually languish in the bottom five. As a New Orleans resident, I can attest to the fact that the Big Easy is more rabid about football than basketball.
The already comparatively small population of Metro New Orleans took a major hit after the devastation of Hurricane Katrina. However, I believe Katrina helped convince David Stern to keep the Hornets in New Orleans. After Stern's NFL counterpart, Paul Tagliabue, made the bold move to keep the Saints in New Orleans, Stern had no choice but to follow suit. Stern recognized how badly it would reflect on the NBA if a team relocated after a natural disaster.
Stern said, "That's not who we are. There may be good and sufficient reasons to leave a city, but not one that has just had a disaster after having built a building for a team it didn't have and supported it in a first-class way. I always believed we had that obligation to New Orleans."
I also believe that Stern likes having the NBA in New Orleans because of its reputation as a top tourist destination, convention site, and major event host. For sporting events such as NBA All-Star Weekend, New Orleans is world-renowned. It's no coincidence that the Hornets have already hosted one NBA All-Star game in New Orleans and will do so again in 2014.
Commenting on why he chose New Orleans, Stern said, "There is no better place to celebrate and showcase the NBA than in New Orleans, a city with a rich tradition of hosting major events that is second-to-none. Our 2008 NBA All-Star festivities proved a terrific experience for everyone involved, and we anticipate 2014 will be even better."
For NBA fans who wonder why David Stern took the extraordinary step of assuming ownership of the Hornets to prevent relocation, he had no choice. If the Hornets relocated, Stern would be practically admitting that the NBA has twice acted in error by granting New Orleans an NBA franchise. In this instance, Stern's commitment to New Orleans has paid off. The Hornets finally have an outstanding local owner and a new lease agreement through 2024.
If nothing else, the lesson to be learned by the NBA's return to Seattle and New Orleans is that Sacramento fans should someday have a team of their own to cheer for once again.
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.
More from this contributorCP3 or C-3PO?
- Sports & Recreation
- New Orleans
- New Orleans Hornets
- Seattle Sonics
- the Sonics