Thursday, January 10, 2008

No thanks to you 

While in New Orleans I saw a local sports anchor bemoan the lack of attendance to NBA Hornets games. The team is 23-12 after last night's loss to the Lakers, and has a very exciting star in Chris Paul. But much like the rest of the city, the Hornets are struggling at the gate, dead last in attendance in the league through the first 15 of 41 home games, averaging 11,871. There have therefore been discussions that the team might move, despite concessions including the NBA All-Star game next month coming to New Orleans. (As was the BCS Championship. How many more, some wonder?)

Yesterday the Hornets' ownership signed a lease extension with the state of Louisiana that says, in short, "we'll stay only if there are more fannies in the seats."

"The extension essentially makes up for the time the team spent when it relocated to Oklahoma City following Hurricane Katrina in 2005," a joint news release from Gov. Kathleen Blanco's office, the arena's managers and the team said Wednesday.

It also allows the Hornets to opt out after next season, albeit with penalties ranging from $50 million to $100 million. The precise cost would depend on inducement reimbursements by the team to the state and a relocation fee imposed by the NBA.

The lease says the Hornets may leave only if average attendance is worse than 14,735 for the final five months of this season and next season. The benchmark is close to the team's average attendance for the three seasons before Hurricane Katrina. Such an average still would leave the Hornets in the bottom third of NBA attendance, league officials said.

Oklahoma City wants a team, and to hear friends from Oklahoma tell it (Angus, you got something here?) the area is crazy for basketball. They are trying to lure the Seattle Sonics to the city as well. But this lease seems designed to set a price for the Hornets to exit New Orleans. It's worth remembering that the Hornets were last in the league for attendance before Katrina. True, that's pre-Paul, but it's hard to see how New Orleans ever has been a basketball city. The lease isn't saving basketball in New Orleans. It's terms of surrender.

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