- The Washington Times - Monday, March 29, 2004

NEW ORLEANS — A new city. A new stadium with all the modern amenities. And still plenty of tickets available for the New Orleans Hornets — as many as several thousand for a typical game.

The NBA needed some convincing before allowing the Hornets to relocate for the 2002-03 season from Charlotte to New Orleans, now one of the smallest markets in the league.

After finishing 19th out of 29 teams in average home attendance in their first season in town, the Hornets have dropped to 28th — ahead of only Atlanta — despite being a shoo-in for the playoffs.

“It was surprisingly empty. We could have gone and sat anywhere,” fan Jeff Shyman said of a recent game he attended.

Shyman went to 10 games a year ago. He has seen only two this season, yet struggles to explain the drop-off.

Could the novelty be wearing off?

“When I went to the first few games and it was really crowded, I had a lot of fun, and I’m surprised it didn’t take off because it seemed like everyone had a great time,” he recalls. “Maybe I’m just lazy. It’s easy to watch it on TV.”

Hornets chief operating officer Jack Capella said team officials are “happy but not satisfied” with ticket sales this year. He said the Hornets, who have had four sellouts, will turn a profit.

“You can’t judge success or failure by attendance figures,” he said.

The Hornets have some advantages other teams do not because of the pitch the state of Louisiana made to bring them here. They received a favorable lease — including control of most concession and parking revenues — on an arena that has a pair of club lounges, 56 private suites and a 140-seat “super suite.”

The team also got a tax break, worth as much as $3.65million a year, that had been designed for companies bringing in high-paying jobs. And they have several major corporate sponsors like Anheuser-Busch and PepsiCo.

The Hornets also have a cable TV deal reaching homes across the state and well into Mississippi, and will benefit from a share of the expansion fees being paid by Charlotte’s new team, which begins play next season.

But in terms of ticket sales, New Orleans is far behind league-leading Detroit, which averaged 21,128 fans through its first 34 games.

Although the Hornets can do little better than their arena’s 17,200 listed capacity, they averaged only 14,243 in paid attendance — about 1,400 a game below last season — through their first 38 home games. That figure trailed even Orlando (14,286), which has one of the worst records in the league and no chance of making the playoffs.

“New Orleans is an event town, and you kind of have to work your way into the fabric of that — and we’re not quite there yet,” Capella said. “We have to become a part of the city, and the fans will continue to come.”

The league is not concerned, said Bernie Mullin, NBA senior vice president of marketing and team business operations.

“New Orleans is a great city with a strong basketball fan base and we are confident the NBA and Hornets will have a long-lasting and successful presence there,” he said.

New Orleans already has lost one NBA team, the Jazz, which had seven losing seasons here before moving to Utah in 1979. Attendance was not a problem with that team, which in 1977 set a then-single-game attendance record of 35,000 in the Louisiana Superdome. The Jazz’s departure had more to do with then-owner Sam Battistone’s dislike of New Orleans and his inability to schedule home games in the dome during Mardi Gras and high convention season.

Capella says it’s far too early for Hornets fans to worry about losing another team.

“We’re just starting out again, redeveloping basketball connections that were lost when the Jazz left,” Capella says. “This is an area that has a basketball history, and we need to reconnect.”

Earlier this season, the team’s top marketing executive, Alex Martins, left. Capella said that was a blow, but the team is moving ahead with new pricing plans for next season, lowering the cost of a number of tickets and working on a variety of multigame packages that allow fans who can’t afford full season tickets to become partial season ticket holders.

Shyman, who has season tickets for the NFL’s Saints, said New Orleans fans’ loyalty and support of pro sports has been evident with the football team. The Saints have sold out nearly every game for four seasons running, despite not making the playoffs three of those years.

“New Orleans doesn’t care about winning as much as it cares about community, and the Hornets are not really part of our community yet,” he says. “There’s nothing they can do about that except stick around.”

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