Commentary

Charlotte Bobcats: Nothing but ... Air?

Originally Published: April 7, 2011
By J.A. Adande | ESPN.com

Michael Jordan Kent Smith/NBAE/Getty ImagesThe Bobcats have a superstar owner ... but will they ever be able to attract or afford top free agents?

CHARLOTTE -- The Charlotte Bobcats are losing money on an annual basis. They're in the bottom third of the league in attendance. Their games are watched by the fewest viewers of any team in the NBA. But their owner could beat any other owner in a game of one-on-one.

Michael Jordan means more to the Bobcats than supremacy in a hypothetical hoops bracket among team bosses. Since he bought the team last year, Jordan has become an integral part of the Bobcats' marketing, corporate partnerships and even hopes for attracting free agents.

"The biggest thing for us is to win," guard Stephen Jackson said. "As you win, it's a lot of guys that want to play for Michael Jordan."

"He's probably the best player ever," Bobcats fan Marcus Barrett said. "Who wouldn't want to work for the best player in basketball or come play for the best player in basketball?"

They need something to cling to in Charlotte. How else are you going to attract free agents to a team that's been to the playoffs once in its seven-year existence and resides in a state where college basketball is king? If the belief that a superstar might want to come play for the man whose silhouette adorned two generation's worth of aspiring basketball players, so be it.

For now, Jordan's impact has made more of a difference in the boardroom than on the court, thanks largely to his willing participation.

"We think every day about how we can involve Michael in our business," Bobcats chief operating officer Fred Whitfield said.

An in-arena advertisement offers fans a chance to meet Jordan at an upcoming event. He gets together with sponsors and ticket holders; he shows up at team events at local schools.

"A lot of people thought he wouldn't be as involved; they thought he'd be an owner that didn't spend time here, that didn't live here," Whitfield said. "He's already spent time here; he's bought a house here."

Whitfield said Jordan has brought pre-existing relationships with his self-named shoe brand, 2K Sports, Hanes and Gatorade to the Bobcats.

"They all have partnerships with us now," Whitfield said.

Charlotte Bobcats
ESPN.comMJ has brought his brand to the Bobcats franchise.

So does a Swedish outdoor equipment manufacturer that just brought its North American headquarters to Charlotte, which explains the bright white Husqvarna signs around the arena. The Bobcats have added 45 partners since Jordan became majority owner. But it's not progress as much as merely coming to the surface after lurking in the deepest part of the water, if you consider where the Bobcats were.

"We weren't connected to the community at all," Whitfield said. "We didn't have a naming rights deal for our building, which clearly hurt us from a credibility standpoint in the corporate community. We had a television deal that only allowed about half of our potential viewing market to see our games live on TV. You couldn't get our games on satellite, so most of the restaurants around town that people would typically go to watch games had the NBA package, but our games were blacked out. We didn't have a great relationship with the two local banks that happened to be the second- and third-largest employers in town … because our debt was financed with an out-of-state bank. There were a lot of challenges in the market, and, quite frankly, we weren't even relevant in the market. No one really cared that the Bobcats existed."

Now that the awareness has increased and the corporate partnerships have been established, now that the sales staff turned the team's first playoff appearance last year into a 93 percent season-ticket renewal, it's up to the Bobcats to start providing some return on the investment. It's one thing for Jordan to spend time in Charlotte, it's another for him to spend money on the team.

So far, most of his moves have been in the opposite direction, shedding salary instead of chasing victories. Three starters from last year's playoff team -- Raymond Felton, Tyson Chandler and Gerald Wallace -- have departed via free agency or trades, as the team has made every move with an eye on staying below the luxury tax threshold.

"For us, that's mandated, basically," general manager Rod Higgins said. "I don't think our team is there yet where we can say we want to ask our owner to go over the luxury tax.

"I don't see in the foreseeable future that we'll be able to go into the tax land -- unless we get that big name. You get that big name, and maybe you go and knock on your owner's door and say, 'We can get this guy.'"

Will the business become so successful that it inevitably spills over to the court? Or is it necessary to throw some seed money into the product to attract customers?

The Bobcats are 21st in the NBA in attendance, averaging 15,876 fans per game. Incredibly, their typical broadcast is seen by even fewer people -- 11,000 per game, according to data compiled by Sports Business Journal -- and that's after securing a double-whammy deal that brought them an arena naming rights sponsor (Time Warner Cable) and made their games more readily available on local cable and satellite packages. In the NBA's current economic climate, that could make the Bobcats a candidate for the possibility of contraction, a measure commissioner David Stern says is unlikely but never quite rules out. Once again, Jordan's clout (not to mention the fact he's the league's only African-American owner) probably grants the Bobcats immunity.

Bobcats fan
J.A. Adande/ESPN.comMartin Delgado II holds a pair of shoes that Stephen Jackson signed for him during a Bobcats game.

The Bobcats like to play up the small-town aspect to foster a greater sense of community. At a game, they promised the first 20 people to renew their season tickets the opportunity to meet up with Jackson afterward. And during the game, while sitting on the bench, Jackson signed a pair of orange sneakers and gave them to a ball boy to hand to a kid.

It turns out the boy's father, Martin Delgado, owns a jewelry story and designs pieces for Bobcats players. You can consider Delgado a reality-shaded optimist about the team.

"The scouts have to work twice as hard; the coaches have to work twice as hard," he said. "I don't think it's money. They have to get the guys nobody else knows anything about. It's going to be difficult. It's going to be real difficult. They've got to have the right combination, draftwise.

"As long as the team's competitive, no matter if they're winning or losing, as long as they're competitive, you've got a chance of building on that."

In another section of the arena, Jonathan Rebsamen sat with his son and refused to call the NBA's setup unfair.

"I think free agency is good for the game. I think having free agents is good to get the fan base riled up in different markets," Rebsamen said. "But it all comes down to teams. It comes down to coaches, it comes down to management, it comes down to surrounding the superstars with quality players on the floor."

The Bobcats have their superstar. Too bad he never gets any nearer to the action than the seat closest to the team bench.