The Oklahoma City Hornets

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.

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9 Responses to The Oklahoma City Hornets

  1. PDiddie says:

    The Saints will wind up in L.A., hopefully without Tom Benson.

  2. Kent says:

    I can’t see an NFL team in Oklahoma. That’s college land. The Sooners own that market. An NFL team would be better advised to locate in a larger market that doesn’t have a major college team that already owns the football market. Other than Los Angeles which is a unique case, the largest metro areas without an NFL team are:

    Portland (#23)
    Sacramento (#25)
    Milwaukee (#27)
    Orlando (#28)
    San Antonio (#30)
    Norfolk–Virginia Beach–Newport News (#31)
    Las Vegas (#32)

    None of these cities have major college teams, at least not top-tier major college teams with rabid fan bases. I don’t count Portland State, Central Florida and UNLV as top-tier programs.

    The Packers already play some of their games in Miwaukee and probably already own that market. But the others seem ripe for an NFL team. My guess is that San Antonio would be top of the list given how big football is in Texas and the lack of any college football in San Antonio. Of course every owner wants to move to Los Angeles but I suspect the league is holding out for an expansion team there so they can all pocket the buy-in money rather let one of the existing owners cash into that cash cow by moving a team there.

    Having lived in Portland my guess is that Portland is more interested in a baseball team than football. All the stadium talk in Portland has been for baseball. I don’t know about Sacramento. But it’s a bigger city than most non-Californians have any idea of.

    In any event, all of those cities are at least twice as large as Oklahoma City which ranks as the #49 largest metro area in the country behind #48 Grand Rapids MI, and ahead of #50 Louisville KY.

    The 2000 Census rankings are here:

  3. Mathwiz says:

    OKC’s my hometown, and it’s always had a (largely, but not entirely, undeserved) reputation as being “no fun,” having “no night life,” etc. I suspect that’s a good part of the reason no major league sports franchise has dared to take a chance on them. I hope the Hornets’ success dispels that bad rep. (As a Sooner fan myself, though, I think Kent is right about the NFL. Better to aim for the NBA or NHL; I think Mayor Cornett understands that as well.)

    Most of that rep stems from the “bad old days” when liquor by the drink and pari-mutuel betting were both illegal. OKC’s had both for a couple of decades now, but bad reps die hard. (Less fortunately IMO, Oklahoma has recently joined most other states with a statewide lottery.)

    Oklahoma is still way behind Texas in SOB’s: nude dancing is illegal statewide (the mandatory pasties and G-strings don’t exactly hide much, though); and the local pols love pandering to fundamentalists with obscenity prosecutions that are often outrageous. A few years back, the Tulsa DA actually charged a few poor 7-11 store clerks with “obscenity” for selling copies of Penthouse, IIRC. Before that, OKC had gotten its own panties in a wad over the Academy-Award-winning film version of Gunther Grass’s anti-Nazi novel The Tin Drum (there’s apparently a two-minute scene in the film which suggests, but doesn’t actually depict, oral sex between two underage actors – the ACLU had to take the OKC police to Federal court over that fiasco, so that the judge could explain the First and Fourth Amendments, and the federal Video Rental Privacy Act, to them).

    It’s no accident that the first thing you see when you cross the Red River on Interstate 35 is an adult video store. Still, OKC’s not nearly the “Fundie City” it’s often perceived to be.

  4. RedScare says:

    American Cities Business Journals did a study on the best and worst cities for a new or relocated sports franchise a few years back. The top/bottom 10 is as follows:

    The 10 most appealing new sports markets
    • 1. Los Angeles
    • 2. Philadelphia
    • 3. Portland
    • 4. Orlando
    • 5. Houston
    • 6. Charlotte
    • 7. Grand Rapids, Mich.
    • 8. Washington, D.C.
    • 9. Las Vegas
    • 10. Rochester

    The 10 most over extended sports markets
    • 1. Phoenix
    • 2. Tampa-St. Petersburg
    • 3. Pittsburgh
    • 4. Kansas City
    • 5. Denver
    • 6. Milwaukee
    • 7. Cincinnati
    • 8. Buffalo
    • 9. Indianapolis
    • 10. Raleigh-Durham

    The study was based on Total Personal Income (TPI) of a metro, along with some other factors. If the city already had a team, the cost of that team was subtracted from the TPI. MLB is the most expensive sport, due to number of home games. The NFL can actually go into a smaller market than the NBA for the same reason, plus the TV revenue sharing. Unfortunately, OKC is not listed. They are neither best nor worst.

    The article is here. Note Houston is golden for both NHL and MSL.

  5. kevin whited says:

    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.

    You’re joking, right?

    There’s not enough corporate sponsorship, the market is too small, and Jerry Jones isn’t going to want to give up what is his natural market (after the Sooners, of course).

    Besides, OKC doesn’t even have a stadium!

  6. I’m speculating, not joking. OKC isn’t that small a market. It’s got a metro area of 1,083,346 people, which compares reasonably well to Jacksonville (1,100,491), Memphis (1,135,614), and Buffalo (1,170,111 – all figures from the US Census). If the NFL ever expands, given that almost all the big markets (other than LA, which has other issues for a football team right now) are taken, you’re looking at OKC-sized areas for the most part.

    The same argument about Jones’ turf can be made about San Antonio, and they haven’t been shy about pursuing the Saints. JJ can squawk all he wants, but in the end unless he wants to follow in Al Davis’ footsteps, he’ll have to accept it if the other owners vote to allow a franchise there.

    And so what if they don’t have a stadium? They apparently built a basketball arena on spec, and it’s now paying off. Houston didn’t have a stadium when McNair started his pursuit of the Texans. That can be easily overcome if the public wants it.

    Like I said, all this is speculation, and it’s pretty wild at that. Other cities – LA and San Antonio, for different reasons – would be well ahead of an OKC if the NFL were looking around. The issues you raise are certainly valid. I just don’t think they’re intractable.

  7. Erick says:

    Besides, OKC doesn’t even have a stadium!

    So? Charlotte didn’t have a stadium for the first year of the Panthers’ exsistance. They played at Clemson’s stadium. When the Oilers moved to Tennessee, they played at the Liberty Bowl in Memphis, Neyland Stadium in Knoxville, and Vanderbilt Stadium in Nashville until their stadium was built. When the Rams relocated to St. Louis, they played the ’95 season in Busch Stadium, which had been retrofitted for baseball after the Cardinals went to Phoenix. Seattle didn’t have a stadium until the Kingdome was built in ’76, and the NFL awarded the city the Seahawks in ’74.

    And the excuse that OKC can’t handle an NFL team because of the Sooners is so played out. There are plenty of football fans to go around. Just take a look at I-35 out of OKC any weekend of a Cowboys home game, or I-44 out of Tulsa any weekend of a Chiefs home game. Besides, there are plenty of other college markets with NFL teams such as Miami, Detroit, Seattle, Phoenix and Atlanta.

    The small market size excuse is equally ridiculous. OKC’s market size (45) is larger than that of Jacksonville (53), which hosted the Super Bowl in February, Buffalo (47), and Green Bay (69). The Packers played several home games each season at County Stadium in Milwaukee until ’94.

    All of that said, the NFL doesn’t seem eager to expand anytime soon, so a team would have to want to relocate. With most NFL teams playing in new stadiums, or building new stadiums, I don’t see relocation happening anytime soon. I agree that the NHL, NBA, or MLS is a much more viable option for OKC.

  8. Ryan says:

    First and foremost, Los Angeles is most likely getting an expansion by 2010, according to Tagliabue. San Antonio appears to be heading for the other franchise (the NFL loves giving them out in pairs), but Oklahoma City might be getting some attention from the League now also.

    Personally, I think that Grand Rapids Michigan is a great place for a NBA franchise, if only temporarily like New Orleans has been. They have supported their minor-league hockey and Arena Football teams for years, and it really is a great city. They have a excellent facility already in place with the Van Andel Arena, and having been to events in both the Ford Center in OKC and the Van Andel Arena, I must say Grand Rapids takes the cake there.

    Grand Rapids is very slightly larger than Oklahoma City in population, but we’ll count them as equal for the sake of making a point. Grand Rapids is also ranked #7 in Most Appealing New Markets, well ahead of OKC.

    Oklahoma isn’t really a NCAA hoops state with only two Final Four championship game appearances in the state’s history (Oklahoma A&M won in ’45, ’46). Michigan has 7 appearances in the championship game, with 3 titles between the Wolverines and Spartans. With Indiana and Detroit both doing great in the NBA the last few years, I really believe that Grand Rapids will support an NBA franchise.

  9. Rick says:

    Eric, you are way off.

    Oklahoma’s college basketball teams have done very well the past couple of decades. OU made it to the championship in 1988, and several OU/OSU teams have made the Big Dance. Final Fours – OU 2002, OSU 1995, 2003, with many Big 12 championships between them. Every basketball hoops fan knows who Kelvin Sampson and Eddie Sutton are. Even Tulsa as a national reputation as a b-ball school.

    As far as supporting an NBA franchise, I believe the eighth-largest average attendance in the NBA with at least 10 sellouts have made our case.

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