Small Crowds Stinging Hornets Owner Shinn

"It's somewhat disappointing," guard Chris Paul, running on to the court before a game, said of the small crowds for the 34-15 Hornets.
"It's somewhat disappointing," guard Chris Paul, running on to the court before a game, said of the small crowds for the 34-15 Hornets. (By Layne Murdoch -- Nbae/getty Images)
By Michael Lee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 12, 2008

NEW ORLEANS -- NBA Commissioner David Stern said the primary reason the league selected New Orleans to host the 2008 All-Star Game was to recognize and reward the city as it continues its slow recovery from Hurricane Katrina. But it might actually serve as an opportunity for the league to get in one last celebration before the hometown Hornets leave.

Since returning from a two-year displacement in Oklahoma City, the Hornets have been a success on the basketball court but a bust at the box office in New Orleans.

The team ranks second-to-last in the league in attendance (averaging 12,645, ahead of only Indiana) and is drawing worse than in its last season in New Orleans, 2004-05 -- when it was a league-worst 18-64, and the leading scorer was journeyman point guard Dan Dickau.

"It's somewhat disappointing," Hornets point guard Chris Paul said of the low attendance at New Orleans Arena this season. "But at the same time, we just have to control what we can control -- and that's wins and losses. If we continue to play well and play hard, the fans will see what we're able to do and they'll come out."

It could be happening. Paul made that comment before the Hornets produced their second sellout of the season last Saturday against lowly Memphis in their final home game before the all-star break. Hornets Owner George Shinn is hopeful that this weekend's all-star events can provide a much-needed attendance boost to his team, which should be the feel-good story of the league.

The Hornets (34-15) have the second-best record in the Western Conference and hold the Southwest Division lead, just ahead of the Dallas Mavericks. Paul has played well enough to make the all-star team and get mentioned in the league's most valuable player discussion. Forward David West joined him as an all-star reserve and Byron Scott will coach the team.

With the Hornets playing in a half-empty arena, Shinn last month negotiated a clause to possibly terminate the Hornets' lease if they fail to draw an average of 14,735 fans from December 2007 through next season.

"I just want to have some kind of safety net in case the bottom falls out," said Shinn, who, as part of the agreement, freed Louisiana of its obligation to build a $20 million downtown New Orleans practice facility. That promise had helped lure the team from Charlotte.

Stern called the attendance benchmark "modest," considering the Hornets would still be among the bottom third in attendance. To reach the target, the Hornets would need to average 15,251 fans over the next 57 home games.

Many league observers have speculated that Shinn is merely trying to work his way back to Oklahoma City -- where the team averaged more than 18,000 fans -- especially with the Seattle SuperSonics' Oklahoma-based ownership group looking to move that team there. "I can't control what people are going to think," Shinn said. "I hope they understand and realize, I'm sincere. I didn't have to come back. And I don't want to move anymore. I'm tired of it. It's very costly. I'm 66."

Shinn spent more than $10 million to move his staff back from Oklahoma City last summer. Opting out of the lease would cost Shinn approximately $100 million, he said. Roughly $30 million would be for relocation fees, penalties and reimbursements of past inducements from the state. Shinn would also be forced to pay back minority partner Gary Chouest, who bought a 25 percent interest for $62 million last July.

Team president Hugh Weber said Shinn doesn't have one foot out the door. "If it was an opt out with a very little threshold for pain, a very little amount of money, then I'd say, 'Ooh, you're right,' " Weber said.

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2008 The Washington Post Company