Prior to Katrina, New Orleans was losing population and economic clout. The return of George Shinn's Hornets to New Orleans from a two-year residence in Oklahoma City has been a failure so far. Shinn's Hornets averaged 14,221 customers per game in 2004–05. This season, Shinn's Hornets are drawing less than 12,000 per game. Last week, Shinn and Louisiana officials hammered out a new arena agreement that could keep Shinn's team in the city through 2014. But there is also an escape clause that will allow Shinn to move his team after the 2008–09 season if he cannot sell an average of 14,375 customers per home game for the final months of this season and all of next year.
Shinn is hosting the league's All-Star Game in February, which means that he not only has to sell more tickets this and next year, but he also has to hang onto those customers who bought season subscriptions just to have an opportunity to get All-Star Game festivities tickets. In an economically devastated area that was a questionable NBA market even prior to Katrina, this may be a difficult task, which is an assessment that even Stern acknowledges.
"[The new lease] sets out quite clearly that the Hornets very much want to stay for the duration plus in New Orleans. They've set some benchmarks that if we all work hard, we are hopeful that we will meet," Stern said.
The All-Star Game will give New Orleans a sports platform again, but the real question comes down to economics and whether or not New Orleans has the financial wherewithal to support a high-priced, luxury item such as an NBA team.
"We think so," Stern said. "We think [the All-Star Game], together with the city council to encourage broader distribution of their cable sports network, [puts us] at the beginning of a real growth spurt." Stern said.
New Orleans has only one of the three absolute essentials needed for a successful franchise: government support. There is very limited cable TV support, and there are few major corporate giants in the area. The cable TV battle going on between the Hornets and two multiple system operators in New Orleans' wealthier suburbs has not received national press play. Cox Communications, which runs Cox Sports Television and is the Hornets' cable TV rights holder, and Charter Communications were unable to reach a new carriage agreement last September because of the rising costs of sports rights fees and, because of that failure, Hornets games are not available in St. Tammany's Parrish. Charter reaches 200,000 people, and the NBA thinks it is critical that Hornets games are on cable TV on the north shore of Lake Pontchartrain in marketing efforts. A small market such as New Orleans cannot afford to lose any cable carriers.