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NBA Analysis: David Stern's Relationship with New Orleans Hornets

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I talked about the recent sales of several NBA teams in last week’s Rogue of the Week, noting the inherent hypocrisy of David Stern claiming that NBA teams are hemhorraging money while buyers are lining up to invest in teams. But one team that I did not address was the New Orleans Hornets, because they represent a rather unique case.

The Hornets have had no shortage of interested bidders once it became apparent that former owner George Shinn was financially incapable of running the team. Minority owner Gary Chouest failed in his bid to increase his stake of the team, while Larry Ellison, who also tried to buy the Warriors, showed interest in the Hornets. Yet instead of allowing one of these men to take over, the NBA bought the Hornets last December from Shinn for $300 million. If it seemed questionable that the league would take over New Orleans instead of allowing a new buyer to do so, the case became even more complicated when Ellison revealed that he bid $350 million for the team--$50 million more than the NBA paid—but was not allowed to buy the franchise.

The Hornets’ situation is a complicated one, because you not only have to take into account the normal issues that accompany an ownership change—changes in team management, likelihood of the team moving—but two other, hugely important extenuating circumstances. The first is the fact that the NBA owns the Hornets during a lockout, while has a whole host of implications, including a voice on the ownership panel for Stern and the NBA. The second is the Sonics’ messy move to Oklahoma City three years ago—a situation that has tremendous relevance to the Hornets’ current predicament.

Let’s start with the NBA’s ownership of New Orleans during a lockout. This situation gives the NBA an important bargaining chip at the negotiation tables in that they can easily contract the team, eliminating 15 players’ jobs straight away. While contraction may actually help the league solve its financial problems, it’s unlikely players would be excited to see this option exercised as it means less jobs.

However, I’m more interested in the parallels between the Hornets’ situation and the Sonics’ situation from a few years ago. Stern has repeatedly said that he wants to keep the Hornets in New Orleans, and that he has 4-5 interested buyers who are committed to doing just that. Yet he continually claims that he will not sell the team until the team gains a more stable situation in New Orleans, particularly with regards to season-ticket sales. This concerns me because of the possibility that Stern is being disingenuous—and that he is holding onto the team for the benefit of the NBA and the other owners, instead of preparing the team for a new owner.

The simple fact is that the Hornets have not been very successful during their time in New Orleans (they moved from Charlotte in 2002) and this is not the first time the NBA has failed in the Big Easy (the Jazz moved to Utah in 1979 after just five seasons). Why, then, does Stern want to keep the NBA in New Orleans so badly when he allowed Clay Bennett to buy the Sonics five years ago, knowing full well that Bennett had every intention of moving the team to OKC?

The Sonics’ move had less to do with dwindling fan support (as it does in NO) than the failure to secure a new arena to replace KeyArena, which had been built in 1962. The Sonics also had a much richer history than the Hornets, as they played in Seattle for 41 seasons, winning the 1979 NBA championship. But New Orleans is the city that gets to keep its team? Even after those very same Hornets drew formidable support while playing in OKC from 2005-07? It makes no sense to me. I’d love to hear Stern explain why New Orleans is more deserving of a franchise than Seattle, as well as why the NBA has to be the ones to stabilize the Hornets in New Orleans when the league has several buyers lining up to buy right now.


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