The New Orleans Hornets are doing way better than anyone expected drawing crowds in their maybe-temporary home of Oklahoma City.
After Hurricane Katrina made landfall along the Gulf Coast on Aug. 29 and then the levees broke and New Orleans was flooded, no one could have expected this for an NBA franchise that was already sinking. In a matter of just weeks, the citizens of Oklahoma City reached out to the Hornets, provided a temporary home, a sense of belonging and, in the process, vaulted themselves into the picture for major-league sports.
The 45th-largest television market in the country, Oklahoma City has filled its shining new $90 million basketball arena with an average of 18,666 fans (97.4 percent of capacity) through the Hornets’ first six home games. The team will play 35 games here this season and has an option to return for next season, if necessary.
What everyone from the Hornets’ front office to city officials to the local business community hoped for was a warm, charitable reception for the displaced slam dunkers. What they got immediately was rabid support in the form of 10,000 season tickets sold in the first 10 days, putting the team in the top third in the league.
“My expectations were lofty, but we’ve exceeded them,” said Oklahoma City Mayor Mick Cornett, a former local television sports anchor.
Long before Katrina devastated New Orleans, Cornett had been like a hungry terrier gnawing on the cuff of NBA commissioner David Stern, who took to calling him “The mayor who wouldn’t go away.”
“He was persistent, he was thorough and he was passionate about his city,” Stern said. “He got my attention and made us begin to examine the market. Before he came to see me and make his case, Oklahoma City was not on our radar screen.”
Neither was it in the sights of Hornets owner George Shinn in the days after Katrina struck and he was trying to find a safe landing spot.
“When I talked to the commissioner, he suggested I take a look here, and I said, ‘Where?’ I had been to Oklahoma once in my life, many years ago,” Shinn said. “I was more interested in Las Vegas. But David told me, ‘You owe it to yourself to take a look.’ So I did and the more I checked it out, the more positive I became.”
Shinn’s team that fled Charlotte after averaging 11,286 fans in 2001-02 languished at the bottom of the NBA with an average of 14,221 last season in New Orleans. Though he says he’s committed to returning to New Orleans, right now Shinn is positively beaming about his port in the storm.
There have been no promises to Oklahoma City. But for a league having trouble getting arenas built in Orlando, Seattle and Sacramento, Stern said Oklahoma City sits at the top of a potential franchise relocation list.
The fans are buying tickets and jerseys and T-shirts and hats. They’re turning out in droves for personal appearances the players make around town. They’re coming early to games and they’re staying late, even through losses.
“When we go back to New Orleans, this city will get a franchise,” Shinn said. “I don’t know if it will be NBA or NFL or hockey. But somebody’s going to come here. This area is too good, too right, too ready. Oklahoma City has been a secret and the secret’s out.”
Team finances are awfully complicated these days, but at a wild guess, I’d say the NFL might be a decent bet for OKC if they ever expand (and after they finally put another team in Los Angeles), since their TV contract is all national. MLB, which features local TV contracts for every team (exhibit A for why some teams earn more revenue than others even before home attendance is figured in), would be the least likely. The city has demonstrated to the NBA that they can and will support one of its teams, so who knows about that.
Still, as things stand now, the Hornets and George Shinn are saying all the right things about returning to New Orleans, which is a sharp contrast to the Saints and owner Tom Benson, despite the fact that the Saints have an actual history in New Orleans, while the Hornets have two mediocre seasons there. The Jeffersonian has covered that story well, so I’ll point you there for linkage. It’s a little hard for me to believe that at the end of the 2006-2007 season, when the Hornets will likely be finishing up a second wildly successful year in OKC, that Shinn will be singing the same tune. Given the financial incentive and the relative lack of bad blood that would result from relocating, I’ve got to think he’ll be taking the matter under long advisement.