New Orleans Hornets Ready To Be Re-Sold
On December 6th, 2010, in a surprise move, the NBA assumed control of the New Orleans Hornets, buying out the franchise from former owner George Shinn.
Shinn had been in the process of selling the franchise to minority owner Gary Chouest; however, the two sides couldn’t make a deal. Shinn, according to some, was unwilling to continue eating the losses of the team and threw up his hands.
Roughly a year later, the NBA seems poised to not only re-sell the franchise in the coming weeks, but to insure the team stays in New Orleans for the foreseeable future with a new long-term lease.
When the NBA assumed ownership of the team, Jac Sperling was appointed governor of the team by the league and was paired with team president Hugh Weber. The two set out to prove that not only were the Hornets a valuable and viable franchise, but that NBA business could be conducted in New Orleans on a much bigger scale.
“When we started, the commissioner’s vision was to give New Orleans a chance to show what it could do in establishing itself as an NBA city for the long term,” Sperling explained to HOOPSWORLD. “That was our goal and our vision and we took it seriously from the very beginning.
“There’s a great staff here. The governor and the mayor have been really supportive. Our fans are great. We just put our shoulders to the wheel from day one and came up with some ideas about what we needed to do to change.”
The Hornets achieved an unthinkable milestone a year ago, reaching the 10,000 milestone in season ticket sales for the current season, which, considering the NBA lockout and the uncertainty surrounding the team, was surprising even to the most optimistic observers.
“We set the goal at 10,000 season tickets to turn the franchise around, increase sponsorships, work on a long-term lease arrangement with the state,” explained Sperling. “All those things have either come to pass or are coming to pass now.
“The next step is to find a local buyer and we’re in the process of doing that now. I really like our chances. There are a number of individuals and groups that are interested and we’ll see how it all plays out. I think the fact that there are a number of groups interested is a really positive sign. It shows that the hard work that we undertook a year ago is now starting to yield some results. “
Hugh Webber has been with the Hornets since 2005 and oversees all aspects of the franchise, including the teams’ marketing/branding, basketball operations , community development, strategic planning, and day-to-day operations. He is the key person behind the renewed interest in the Hornets, not only on the court but off.
“We have a long way to go,” explained Weber. “We want to build a team that the people in this community can be proud of and we feel like we’re on track for that.”
“The other piece we’ve had to work through is this ownership, the long-term deal with the state, a lot of new sponsorships and new ticket sales.
“We’ve been running down parallel tracks on so many different priorities. People have asked me which one of those got your attention the most and it’s been one of those years where all of those things had to get my attention.
“I think what we’ve got is on the cusp of becoming something really special. To be able to stand with the governor and potentially the commissioner and a new owner to talk about what this team will look like being here for generations to come and that’s been our goal, our vision and our hope over the last twelve months as we’ve made sure that we’ve kept our eye on the prize. That was the prize and we’re getting really close to that.”
Trading Chris Paul
Much was made about the process the Hornets underwent with regards to trading Chris Paul. The Hornets were close to a deal with the LA Lakers that was ultimately nixed by David Stern. The Commissioner has publically explained that he did not think the offer was good for the Hornets long term.
Instead the team consummated a deal that sent Paul to the LA Clippers returning Chris Kaman, Eric Gordon and Al-Farouq Aminu along with a first round draft pick that belonged to the Minnesota Timberwolves.
For Jac Sperling, who has been involved in sports for more than 20 years, it was simply part of the business.
“Individuals come and go,” explained Sperling. “As great of a player and a citizen as Chris was, he was a player for this city and this team. I think our fans have really understood that our situation is not about any one player. It wasn’t about the labor situation. It was about the future of the city of New Orleans.
“It’s bigger than any one player, it’s bigger than any business transaction and our fans totally understood that.
“We all miss Chris, but he’s off to other ventures and we wish him well. We’re on to different ventures ourselves. We’re in the next phase of the Hornets and we’re looking forward to it. We’ve got some good players. We have a great coach. We have a great general manager and perhaps the best fans in the NBA.”
For Hugh Weber, moving Paul was more personal.
“We’ve always taken the point with any member of this Hornets family to say ‘this is a special place to be, but it’s not perfect for everybody’, explained Weber. “ The situation isn’t always perfect for everybody and whether you’re working in accounting or you’re a world-class point guard it shouldn’t be any different, right?
“I wouldn’t say that it was difficult. I’d say personally it was difficult because his father Charles and his brother C.J. and his mom were part of our family. He came in the league the same time that I came into the league. I felt like I grew up with Chris, so it was difficult from a personal standpoint. At the same time, we knew that we had to balance what was best for all parties involved and I think that’s the solution that we came up with. “
The biggest problem for the Hornets in moving Chris Paul was that it played out in primetime and on a national scale, but that, too, is part of the business, according to Weber.
“Everything we do is made a little bit more complicated by the fact that there are eyeballs evaluating us,” smiled Weber. “Everything we do is under a different level of scrutiny. We can sit back and tell ourselves that it’s not fair or you say that’s one of the duties we have in this role.
“That’s why people come invest money, because there is something intriguing about what we do, so you take the good with the bad.
“Are there uninformed opinions or people who are speculating about things? Sure, but those are always vetted out and the truth of the matter here was this was a situation where we have an owner who happens to be the commissioner of the NBA. We had a player being traded who happened to be an All-Star, all-galaxy player, and when those two things come together they make it a little bit different and that’s ok.
“The tact we took with the fans, who were the ones that we were most concerned about, is something that we’ve built upon which is if you have any questions or concerns, you should talk to us. I got lots of phone calls, I gave lots of speeches, and we did a lot of things to share with people what our objectives were. People in the market here appreciated the fact that there’s a plan that gets us to where they want to be. “
Time To Sell
The Hornets are now “priced to move,” as they say in the retail world, and the process of finding a new owner for the Hornets is underway.
The next big question is who the buyer will be, something neither Sperling nor Weber would even hint at, but it does seem clear that something is coming and likely sooner than later.
“I’ve learned that you can’t convince people with your words, you can only convince them with your actions,” explained Sperling. “From day one we didn’t pay too much attention to what the media was saying nationally or locally. We had to prove that this is a market that will stand behind its team.
“From day one our vision was to hit 10,000 season tickets, to increase our sponsorship sales and get our long-term lease done with the state. The first two we’ve done, the third one we haven’t quite completed yet, but we’re getting close and I think we will get it done. At the end of the day, it’s not about what you say, it’s about what you do.
“From day one that’s what we’ve tried to do was to show our fans, the league and the national media that this is a great city, it’s a vibrant city and it’s a city that loves its NBA franchise.
“We’re only talking to people who are interested in keeping the team in New Orleans because we’re going to have a long-term lease with the state for the arena. That is the goal and I think all of the potential buyers understand that. “
NBA commissioner David Stern has hinted a few times that deal could happen in the first part of 2012, and Sperling agrees that’s a possible time line.
“It’s realistic that we will have a deal done by the end of June,” explained Sperling. “We’re still aiming for that. These transactions have a life of their own and they move at their own pace.
“Sometimes transactions get done quickly and yet it still takes some time to close it. Sometimes it takes a long time to announce it but they close quickly. Every transaction’s a little different, but I think the timeframe that the commissioner has outlined is still the timeframe we’re shooting for.”
The Hornets have the basic outline of a new long-term lease all but done. That deal would likely lock the franchise in New Orleans through 2025. The new agreement would include upgrades on New Orleans Arena and additional revenue streams for the team. There is talk that a new TV deal also awaits a new owner – one that would almost triple TV revenue.
Combined with a better labor agreement, the Hornets are no longer bad business and it seems as many as nine different suitors see the team the same way.
“When you put all of those pieces together there is a great opportunity here for a buyer,” explained Sperling. “I think that’s why we’ve had so much interest from buyers.
“We’ve had a lot of levels of interest in this franchise. I think these are people who live in New Orleans or people who have connections here, and there are also potential buyers who don’t have connections here but who understand that this franchise is going to stay here.”
The only thing that remains is to announce who it’s going to be…