Hornets’ support surging despite lockout

The future of the NBA in New Orleans is showing increasing

promise, even though fans and businesses pouring money into Hornets

tickets and sponsorships have no guarantee that games will be

played next season.

As the Hornets introduced Chevron as their fifth million-dollar

corporate sponsor on Wednesday, team president Hugh Weber said the

franchise is closing in on several goals seen as necessary to

ensure pro basketball’s long-term presence in the Big Easy.

Weber said he has been encouraged by gains in community support

even as the NBA lockout threatens to cancel parts or all of next

season, and as sports fans increasingly turn their attention to the

onset of the NFL and college football seasons.

”Momentum is our most valuable commodity, and at a time when no

one is talking about basketball, we’re still making progress,”

Weber said. ”That speaks to how the community feels about the team

and how important they feel it is for the team to have a long-term

legacy here in New Orleans.”

For now, the Hornets are owned by the NBA, which bought the team

last December from founder George Shinn and former minority owner

Gary Chouest. NBA Commissioner David Stern has said the league

wants to improve the team’s revenue streams to the point where a

buyer who is committed to operating the team in Louisiana will step

forward.

The Hornets have never had as many as five seven-figure sponsors

for a single season, Weber said, adding that the franchise also has

prospects for adding a sixth.

Season tickets have reached 8,900, which already represents an

increase of 2,600 over last season.

Meanwhile, the club is working toward a new TV contract and new

arena lease.

Weber said the primary goal of a new TV deal, which would begin

after next season, is to have games televised in more households

throughout the region.

Currently, Cox Sports TV, which broadcasts most Hornets games,

is not available on satellite provider DirecTV. Until a deal was

workout out in middle of last season, viewers in relatively

affluent suburbs on the north shore of Lake Pontchartrain also

could not see games on their local cable system.

”At end of the day, long-term, what we’re concerned about is

exposure to fans and that they can follow the team no matter where

they live,” Weber said.

The Hornets’ current lease of the state-owned New Orleans Arena

runs through 2014 and includes a provision allowing the team to

leave if attendance falls below an average of 14,735 over a

two-year period. Weber said the team is talking with the governor

about a lease extension that would remove those attendance

benchmarks, which he added won’t be an issue anyway if the Hornets

reach a season ticket base of 10,000.

In June, the Hornets launched a ticket initiative in which they

planned to hold 100 promotional events in 100 days, many of them in

the homes of season-ticket holders who’ve recruited friends or

business associates to buy tickets as well.

They have held about 80 events so far, including some

industry-specific mixers for those working in law, medicine,

construction, finance, and oil and gas. One event was held at a law

office on Tuesday, and more were scheduled through Sept. 14.

While the lockout makes it tough for Weber to promise fans and

businesses entertainment value in the upcoming season, he has

sought to tie New Orleans’ prospects for sustained growth to its

ability to retain its major pro sports franchises.

The Hornets have sought to win over fans off the court with

contributions to the city’s ongoing recovery from Hurrciane

Katrina. The team has rebuilt public basketball courts throughout

town, helped rebuild homes, and also has worked with schools to

give tickets and merchandise to students with good grades and

behavior records.

Last year, the Hornets joined with Chevron to raise $200,000 to

promote the recovery of the seafood industry and coastal habitats

after the BP oil spill.

Warner Williams, vice president of Chevron’s Gulf of Mexico

business unit, said working with the Hornets on public service

initiatives motivated him to do more to solidify the franchise’s

footing in New Orleans.

”It’s really about supporting the economic sustainability of

the region and ensuring the team stays in the city,” said

Williams, who first came to New Orleans to work for Chevron in the

mid-1970s, when the Jazz was New Orleans’ team and Pete Maravich

delighted fans in the Louisiana Superdome.

Now, with New Orleans still rebuilding from a disaster that

destroyed his mother-in-law’s home six years ago, he doesn’t want

to see the NBA leave his adopted hometown again.

”Having two professional teams in the city is important,”

Williams said. ”There’s a lot of morale building that goes on at

these Hornets games.”