Oklahoma City high on list of home sites for Hornets

Updated: September 18, 2005, 10:48 PM ET
By Darren Rovell | ESPN.com

When Oklahoma City opened up its Ford Center three years ago, its residents surely hoped that it would one day host a major professional sports team. After all, it was built to satisfy both NBA and NHL specifications.

The size and the overall lack of events in the arena look to be in the city's favor when the NBA figures to announce the location of the home games for the New Orleans Hornets next week. The New Orleans Arena was not severely damaged by Hurricane Katrina, but it's not likely that any games could be played in the facility this year.

A person with knowledge of the league's negotiations told ESPN.com that it is very likely that some of the Hornets games will be played in the state of Louisiana -- in Baton Rouge -- but Oklahoma City is the clear front-runner if the team needs to play somewhere else. Complicating factors in Baton Rouge, where the New Orleans Saints will play four of their home games, is that LSU's Pete Maravich Assembly Center is currently serving as a temporary home to evacuees. NBA officials spent Wednesday and Thursday in Baton Rouge to inspect the facilities and to donate their time and goods to the storm victims.

Representatives in Louisville, Ky.; Nashville, Tenn.; San Diego; and Kansas City, Mo., also offered to temporarily host the team, but no city can offer the state-of-the-art facility with as many open dates as Oklahoma City can.

NBA officials toured the Ford Center, which has a capacity of 19,675 seats, last Friday and they began to talk about the possible terms of a lease with the team. When matching up the schedule, there were only a few dates that the arena could not host the team. With the only full-time tenant of the building during the NBA season being the Central Hockey League's Oklahoma City Blazers, there are only 36 total events scheduled in the 181 days from November through April, according to the arena's Web site. Only one NBA game is currently scheduled -- a preseason game between the Houston Rockets and the Seattle SuperSonics on Oct. 17.

Oklahoma City mayor Mick Cornett said he believes his city is the first option if all the games can't be played in the state of Louisiana. "They made it clear that they liked what they saw and that our arena was appropriate for NBA games," Cornett said. The mayor would not divulge any other details of a proposed lease such as some sort of ticket guarantee.

The Hornets drew a league-low 14,421 fans per game in New Orleans last season. Those who are familiar with the Oklahoma City market say that a move to the city wouldn't mean a huge drop in attendance.

"This is a great sports community, it's a terrific facility and they shouldn't have trouble drawing large crowds," said Joe Castiglione, athletics director at the University of Oklahoma, which is based in nearby Norman, Okla. The Sooners draw more than 80,000 fans to football games on Saturdays and average about 9,500 fans per men's basketball game.

The Hornets are scheduled to hold the first two weeks of training camp at the Air Force Academy in Colorado and play their first preseason game on Oct. 13 at the Pepsi Center in Denver. But it's possible that if Oklahoma City lands the Hornets, the team could train at a closer location.

Cornett said that if the NBA were to come to Oklahoma City, it would give the local economy a huge boost.

"There are more than a thousand businesses that need to relocate from New Orleans for a short time and, out of all of them, the Hornets are one of the most highly visible," Cornett said. "Having the NBA would place our city on a worldwide stage in a positive manner."

Darren Rovell, who covers sports business for ESPN.com, can be reached at darren.rovell@espn3.com.

Darren Rovell | email

ESPN.com Sports Business reporter