The NBA should wise up and move the right franchise
The NBA needs to forget about feelings and move New Orleans. J.A. Adande writes Seattle should stay.
The NBA needs to stop trying to do what feels good and should focus instead on what makes sense. If franchises are going to start playing musical chairs, the logical move would be to let the vagabond New Orleans Hornets go to Oklahoma City instead of uprooting the Seattle SuperSonics from the only place they've ever called home.
Everyone feels sorry for New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. No one wants to look like the bad guy, to be seen walking over a fallen man instead of helping him up. So we're supposed to think that keeping a dozen pro basketball players around will lead the way to recovery and that if they left it would be the final cruel blow to a battered city.
That overlooks the small little detail that the Hornets don't really matter to New Orleans. Not emotionally, not financially.
If the return of the Hornets full time to New Orleans this season meant that much they would have sold out New Orleans Arena on opening night. They would have drawn at least 10,000 people for the second game. And when they came back from their first road trip with a surprising, division-leading 4-1 record, there would not have been an abundance of tickets available for their matchup with the defending champion Spurs.
Now don't even bother to type the letter "K," let alone "Katrina." This isn't a hurricane issue. The Hornets ranked last and next-to-last in the league in attendance the two seasons before Katrina. But when the Saints came back to the Superdome last season they sold out every game before the season even started -- for a team coming off a 3-13 record.
The Hornets are not the Saints. The Saints go back 40 years. They're as much a part of the city's character as the gumbo. Their improbable run to the NFC Championship Game last season resonated with the citizens, perhaps the deepest bond ever formed between a city and a pro team. They watched the men in black and gold and they saw themselves struggling to overcome nature's wreckage. When the New Orleans Times-Picayune asked its readers to share their thoughts on it, it prompted a huge outpouring, 12 Web pages long. It was filled with stories like the one from a woman who said she cried when she found an old Christmas ornament while sorting through the wreckage of her home, because it was a reminder of her old, normal life. To her, the Saints felt the same way.
The Hornets have as much sentimental value as the last pair of socks you bought. They've spent almost as much time in Oklahoma City as they have in New Orleans since they left Charlotte in 2002. After Oklahoma City stepped in as the Hornets' temporary home post-Katrina, they averaged more than 18,000 fans per game at the Ford Center the past two seasons. Now that they're back home, the Hornets are averaging 13,434 per game.
In Seattle, the SuperSonics are pulling almost 2,000 more people per game, even for a winless team whose owners have officially started the moving process. This is Seattle's oldest pro sports franchise, with 41 years of memories, and it won't be that easy to extract. Fans in the sellout crowd on opening night chanted "Save Our Sonics." There are city- and fan-sponsored lawsuits pending.
In New Orleans the NBA keeps playing up the team's obligation to the city, emphasizing community service and requiring every visiting team to pitch in. In Seattle it's the opposite: Owner Clay Bennett and commissioner David Stern believe the city owes the team. Build a new arena with public funds or it's sayonara for the Supes.
They point to those two gleaming new stadiums for the Mariners and Seahawks and say, "What about us?" They seem to have forgotten that the SuperSonics just got a stadium remodel 12 years ago. It's not the city's fault that between the design and the debut the building was rendered obsolete by Chicago's United Center and its 216 luxury suites -- almost four times as many as Seattle's Key Arena.
And why should the city have to pay? Washington didn't have to pay for the Verizon Center, which Abe Pollin built for his Wizards and Capitals at a cost of $210 million. Phil Anschutz provided about $260 million of the $330 million it took to build Staples Center in L.A., and his company is proposing a $500 million arena that would house an NBA team in Las Vegas.
Besides, the economists always say that pro teams don't make money for their cities. A study commissioned by Los Angeles concluded that "Staples Center failed to contribute an amount to the economy of Los Angeles that was measurably different from zero."
Money that's spent in or around the arena just takes away from money that would be spent elsewhere in the city if the team didn't exist. The study also found that the city of Inglewood actually made more money after the Lakers and Kings left the Forum. And it presented the hypothesis that the Lakers championship runs actually hurt economic activity during the second quarters of 2001 and 2002 (possibly because fans stayed home to watch games instead of going out to spend money, and the lack of productivity and business shutdowns during the championship parades could have cost the city money).
That doesn't mean that there's no value to having a team, that there's nothing worth fighting for in Seattle. Even the economists will tell you that pro teams can have a psychological impact. They can add to the sense of place or strengthen the bond of the community, something that can't be measured.
But when the discussions involve the NBA and Seattle, suddenly you hear nothing but the business side, the $17 million in losses the Sonics incurred last season, the cold hard facts about arena size and lack of revenue potential at the current location.
So what about the business of the NBA? Does it really make sense to leave a city that has more Fortune 500 companies and television households than Oklahoma City and New Orleans combined? Could the league's TV partners really be happy about having a team in the nation's 45th and 53rd markets but not the 14th?
Maybe that's what's keeping city and state governments in the Pacific Northwest from rolling over and writing checks. They want to see if the league is bluffing, if it would really, as the general managers say, trade big for small. Maybe the league would agree to terms that are less reliant on public funds, which was a battle fought and won by L.A. with Staples.
The smart people won't cast the NBA as villains for leaving New Orleans. The league has already done its part to help the recovery. It brought the Hornets back for the first pro game in the city post-Katrina. It awarded New Orleans the 2008 All-Star Game. An NBA.com story touts the $15 million the league has donated to hurricane-afflicted areas of the Gulf Region. (Even though you could argue that was practically negated by the $14.5 million the state recently committed to build a Hornets practice facility.)
New Orleans still has more pressing issues. For one, people are facing the prospect of being evicted from their FEMA trailers (which might have high levels of formaldehyde) and entering a market with little affordable housing. With that background, losing a basketball team that just arrived there five years ago doesn't seem so tragic.
J.A. Adande joined ESPN.com as an NBA columnist in August 2007 after 10 years with the Los Angeles Times. Click here to e-mail J.A.