Hornets seek move to New Orleans

Jan. 17, 2002 at 7:41 PM
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NEW ORLEANS, Jan. 17 (UPI) -- The owners of the Charlotte Hornets visited their prospective new city Thursday, saying they would succeed in New Orleans where other NBA franchises have failed.

On the day they applied to the NBA to relocate the Hornets to New Orleans starting next season, George Shinn and Ray Wooldridge reached an agreement with Louisiana Gov. Mike Foster that would have the team move into the New Orleans Arena next season.

Shinn and Wooldridge both vowed to make the transition work, despite the relatively small market and the city's past apathy toward basketball.

"We're committed to make this thing work," said Shinn, the team's embattled majority owner. "I've heard a lot of people say it's going to be hard. My response is, 'we're gonna show you.'"

"We are so happy to be here," Wooldridge added. "We will not let you down. We need your support."

The memorandum of understanding will make it easier for Shinn and Wooldridge. It calls for a 10-year lease, with the Hornets paying $2 million per year and receiving revenues from premium seating, advertising, naming rights, concessions, novelties and parking.

"Our efforts to attract new business to Louisiana just took a major step forward," Foster said. "The Hornets are a big business themselves, and the great media exposure that comes with them will get our message out to millions of travelers and companies looking to relocate. We welcome our new business partners."

"New Orleans just won a big one," New Orleans Mayor Marc Morial added.

The Hornets are not losers, either. The state will provide up to $10 million in arena improvements to be completed by October and another $5 million to be done by October 2004.

The upgrades include locker rooms, additional luxury suites, a team store, team offices, club lounges and concession areas.

The city will advance funds needed to build a practice facility at an estimated cost of $6.5 million.

"There's no question we would not be making this announcement today if we did not have this facility," Morial said. "Now the ball truly is in our court."

Although the pieces are in place, nothing is final. The move has to be approved by 15 of the NBA's 29 owners. The league likely will form a relocation committee to examine the pros and cons of the prospective move and make a recommendation.

The TV market ranks 43rd nationally and would be the smallest in the NBA. Charlotte is ranked 27th. However, New Orleans already has a 17,500-seat arena available with no major league tenant.

"It's not the size of the market," Shinn declared. "It's how you market your market."

"I am confident we can meet the challenge of selling season tickets and that the people of New Orleans are ready to show the Hornets we're ready for big-time basketball," Morial said.

Shinn and Wooldridge already have the support of one of their brethren -- who was considering his own move not long ago.

"As owner of the New Orleans Saints, I have worked for many years to ensure that New Orleans is a big league city," Tom Benson said in a statement. "If the relocation of the Charlotte Hornets to New Orleans becomes a reality, we wish them well and we look forward to continuing our goal of bringing economic opportunities to our region."

New Orleans was home to the Buccaneers of the original ABA in 1967. However, that team relocated and the city did not have a basketball team until 1974, when the expansion Jazz were born.

That team moved to Utah five years later. In the 1990s, the Minnesota Timberwolves nearly were sold to a New Orleans-based group, but the league did not approve the ownership team.

Part of the problem may be the city's popularity as a tourist attraction. However, the Orlando Magic have done well in a similar type of city.

The Hornets have been searching for a new home since June, when Charlotte voters rejected a package that included a $200 million, publicly financed uptown arena.

Team management has said it cannot survive financially at the 13-year-old Charlotte Coliseum, which lacks the luxury suites found at newer NBA arenas.

General manager Bob Bass has done very well to keep the Hornets competitive, but the team has not re-signed one of its free agents since 1995 and has allowed stars Alonzo Mourning, Vlade Divac, Larry Johnson, Glen Rice, Anthony Mason and Eddie Jones to leave via trades or free agency.

The team is drawing barely 11,000 fans to the 24,000-seat venue, a 23 percent drop-off from last season's figures. Wooldridge said recently he expects the team to lose $20 million this season.

Last March, the Hornets joined the Vancouver Grizzlies in applying for relocation to Memphis. They later withdrew the application and the Grizzlies moved to Tennessee for the NBA's first relocation in 15 years.

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