By Nick Peruffo
For basketball fans in New Orleans, many of whom still remember the unceremonious departure of the New Orleans Jazz in 1979, the NBA’s recent purchase of the Hornets from the often-embattled George Shinn has caused a general sense of pessimism about the future of the franchise. Many observers had questioned the economic viability of the franchise before the takeover, citing low attendance at the New Orleans Arena.
For their part, the largely intact leadership of the Hornets organization has been aggressively trying to assuage fears of relocation. Almost immediately following the purchase Dec. 6, Hornets President Hugh Weber, along with newly appointed franchise “NBA Governor” Jack Sperling co-signed a letter to Hornets fans.
“Our focus remains to create fun, exciting and memorable experiences; build a legacy in our community with integrity and passion and serve as global ambassadors for our hometown of New Orleans,” the letter read. “Your continued support is crucial to the overall success of our franchise, now more than ever.”
Part of Sperling’s job description is to secure a long-term owner for the franchise. Many observers, however, have been critical of the conspicuous lack of a guarantee from either Weber, Sperling or commissioner David Stern that the franchise would remain in New Orleans. With only 10,823 fans showing up for Wednesday’s contest against the Detroit Pistons, it appears confidence in the franchise is at an all-time low.
This has probably been exacerbated by the fact that a purported deal with Louisiana billionaire Gary Chouest has already fallen through. Chouest, who had been a minority owner, was reportedly set to take over the franchise early in the summer. Much of Chouest’s fortune, however, was made from businesses involving offshore drilling. Many have speculated that this summer’s gulf oil spill as well as the NBA’s potential upcoming labor dispute presented too much risk for Chouest.
Also, a document has surfaced on the Internet rumor site Deadspin that apparently shows that the Hornets have $111 million in long-term operating debt, though the Hornets organization has neither confirmed nor denied this report. Times-Picayune beat reporter Jimmy Smith recently wrote an article detailing how the Hornets failing business model is indicative of a wider NBA trend.
The most persistent rumors involving a potential new city for the Hornets mention Kansas City, Seattle, Anaheim and Louisville. Kansas City seems to be the proverbial leader in the clubhouse, with an NBA-ready arena already in place. Also, the success of the Oklahoma City Thunder has diminished fears about the NBA succeeding in a so-called “college town.” Las Vegas, once a favorite to land an NBA franchise, has reportedly fallen out of favor.
While it’s hard to be optimistic about the Hornets staying in New Orleans, Sperling does have some potential options. Rumors have suggested Yahoo! co-founder, Lake Charles native and Tulane alum David Filo, with an estimated net worth of $2.9 billion, as a possible buyer.
New Orleans attorney Morris Bart has also reportedly been trying to assemble an ownership group.