Tag Archives: NBA

Preserving the Pelicans

Here is a piece I wrote for  class a little while back. 


Memphis Grizzlies general manager and vice-president of basketball operations, Chris Wallace, has just finished lecturing to a group of students about his own career path, and the success of the Grizzlies as a small market NBA franchise. For many years, the Grizzlies were a team struggling for success and attendance. Wallace was one of the major reasons for the team’s turnaround both on and off the court.

The New Orleans Pelicans are currently in a very similar position to the struggling Grizzlies’ teams of the early 2000s, and just as Wallace saw optimism for the Grizzlies then, he sees some for the Pelicans now. “I think the NBA as a whole, and the Pelicans in particular, will just continue to grow and grow in this city, because that’s the path for the NBA,” Wallace says, taking a sip of Coke as if to acknowledge the big endorsement deal the soft drink giant has with the league. “The league is in a very healthy place right now.”

“In our sport you can win the championship without being in New York or L.A,” Wallace continues, ignoring the fact that big market teams like the Boston Celtics, Los Angeles Lakers, and Chicago Bulls have collectively won more than half of the league’s championships. Even with that historical imbalance, Wallace does well to point out the recent achievement of some of the smaller market teams. “You take Oklahoma City, Memphis, Indiana. You know Utah had a big run for over a decade with (John) Stockton and (Karl) Malone, and San Antonio’s the best example,” Wallace says, smiling as he names his own squad.

The one factor all of those franchises have in common is that they are the sole entity in their respective market. They have no outside competition from the other big sports leagues. Per the U.S. Census Bureau, the smallest market to have multiple major sports franchises is New Orleans. Much of the reason that New Orleans has two teams, despite its size, is due to the city’s large athletic significance. The Sugar Bowl is held annually in the Crescent City, along with numerous Super Bowls, Finals Fours, and NCAA Football National Championships.

In spite of all the sports history and fervor in the area, the Pelicans/Hornets have really struggled to keep up the attendance. Per ESPN stats, just last year they had the second lowest average home attendance in the league. This is all while the Saints, the Pelicans’ next-door neighbors, continue to have sellouts. Still, Wallace doesn’t think having an NFL competitor affects the Pelicans going forward. “I don’t know why you can’t have a great NBA team where you have a great NFL team,” he says, citing the on-the-court product as being the ultimate reason that a team will be financially successful. In essence, winning breeds attendance, as it has for the Saints.

There is still no denying that an NFL team in a small market is huge competition regardless of an NBA team’s success. Only two other cities in the country have both an NBA and NFL franchise without having at least one other franchise as well. One is Charlotte, and the other is Indianapolis, both larger cities than New Orleans.

This struggle for a foothold in a football city came to a head for the Hornets/Pelicans during the middle of the 2010-2011 season, and many began to seriously question whether the team could stay in New Orleans long-term. The NBA bought the franchise from George Shinn and Gary Choues, and without a perspective owner immediately coming forward, the rumors of a New Orleans exodus began to swell around the media. The Saints were coming off a recent Super Bowl victory, and that, combined with star point guard Chris Paul wanting out, meant there wasn’t a lot of positivity around the Hornets/Pelicans.

Enter Tom Benson, the long time owner of the Saints. “Had Tom Benson not purchased the team, I don’t think the NBA would be here now, let alone in the future, because there’s not enough entertainment dollars to make it work,” says local WDSU sports anchor Fletcher Mackel. “There’s not enough resources to support two teams, there’s not enough corporate money, there’s not enough sponsor money, and there’s not enough people to buy tickets. But now that Tom Benson has to make them both work, I do think that it can be successful and will be successful here.”

Despite Benson’s presence, the attendance issue isn’t going away. As Mackel pointed out, there is just not enough money to go around. New Orleans is a city stricken with poverty. Per the U.S. Census Bureau, more than one out of every four New Orleans residents sits below the poverty line. Despite unemployment actually being down to twenty eight percent as of January, it is still one of the worst rates in the country. As a result, the Smoothie King Center is barely half full most nights, with only visiting teams like the Heat or Thunder drawing big crowds. In reality, many people in New Orleans shouldn’t be spending their money on game tickets when they have other priorities. Mackel thinks that Benson has made peace with the fact that the Pelicans won’t be a moneymaker for him. “I think he truly did this to help the city. As long as he doesn’t lose money, I think he’s ok.”

So what are the benefits to the city? “I think that it helps revenue wise for the city to have the Pelicans, cause it brings in the All-Star game which brings in some extra money and excitement,” weighs in WDSU sports reporter Sharief Ishaq. Wallace thinks the promise of an All-Star game is big too. “It’s a huge event, not just in terms of the amount of out of town visitors it brings in, but just for the recognition it gives a city.” The city hosted its second All-Star game in six years, partly because no other city knows how to handle that national recognition with an ease and unique flavor like New Orleans.

For all the talk of demographics, NFL competition, and market size, there may be one simple basketball factor that determines the future viability and success of this franchise: Anthony Davis. More than any other sport, basketball is a star driven game. One player can alter the landscape of an entire franchise. Over the years the likes of Bill Russell, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Michael Jordan, and now players like LeBron James and Kevin Durant have all done that for their respective teams. In the case of LeBron, it was a lesson of what can happen to a town when a superstar leaves. Per ESPN, Cleveland went from 2nd in attendance to 19th when he left. That’s a gigantic drop, and doesn’t even take into consideration the loss of revenue for business in and around the arena, as well as marketing revenue and national TV appearances. The small market teams that have had success, like San Antonio and Oklahoma City, have been able to put butts in seats because they have held onto their players. Wallace thinks that ability is one of the league’s real strengths. “The set up with the draft and the way the rookie contracts work, the home team is a significant favorite to retain their talent.” That is true to an extent, and though it sounds great in theory, at the end of the day, no matter the regulations and rules in place, big market teams will always have a cash advantage and allure that can be hard to match. Just ask the fans in Cleveland.

Many NBA executives believe that Anthony Davis could be the best player in the league sooner rather than later. That’s a lot of hype, but even in his first two years in the league he has shown flashes of the dominant player he might one day become. In just his second season, Davis was an all-star and led the league in blocks per game. That is great news for New Orleans basketball fans, but only if they can get Davis to sign on after his rookie deal.

As Mackel says, “Their [the Pelicans] success on the court, and even off court is tied to the success of Anthony Davis.” Mackel, like many others, felt Paul was the same way during his time in New Orleans. “Chris Paul was a guy who in essence saved basketball here.” Since he left, the team hasn’t been back to the playoffs. That’s the type of impact one player can have. And even though the then Hornets were that perennial playoff team with Paul leading the charge, he eventually became frustrated with the lack of true success and forced the team to trade him to a bigger market. Davis to this point seems pretty relaxed and focused on basketball, as he continually says all the right things. But the longer this team underperforms, the more the speculation and rumors will start to appear about the big man’s future. It’s clear that he is all-important to the Pelicans, which will give him the leverage to squeeze every possible penny out of a deal. The Pelicans need to give him that money. If you can’t keep a player like him around long term, it affects just about every other aspect of your team structure, as highlighted by LeBron’s departure from Cleveland

The Pelicans are underachieving for now, but Benson has committed the team to the city for the foreseeable future. For now Anthony Davis is a commodity to enjoy, but if the Pelicans can’t keep him for the long haul, All-Star weekends are destined to be the best contribution this team gives the city. For some that may be enough. After all, New Orleans always loves an excuse to party. Yet, if Chris Wallace is to be believed, there is much more than just the occasional weekend bash in store for this franchise. If that is to come to fruition, a tall 21-year-old with one big eyebrow will have to be at the center of it.

Hats Off to Michael Sam

The first Sunday after the Super Bowl. A day of sorrow for many NFL fans, as basketball begins to take the national stage, and baseball is right around the corner. But on this quiet Sunday it wasn’t basketball, or even the Olympics that stole the spotlight, rather the courage of one young man.

Michael Sam is a first team All-American. He is the reigning SEC defensive player of the year. Next year he will be playing football with an NFL team. His family life has been hard. He has had siblings die. He has had siblings go to prison. He was the first member of his family to go to college. He is also gay. And on this football-less Sunday, that is the news that blew the top off of the sporting world. To this point, there has never been an active player in the four major sports (NFL, NBA, NHL, MLB) to come out as gay. Jason Collins, an NBA forward, came out last year, but has been a free agent since.

All too often there are negative stories coming from the NFL. I wrote a short piece in the fall highlighting some of that negativity. Whether it’s drugs, DUIs, fights, or even murder, off the field stories for the NFL don’t exactly shed a lot of positive light on the league or its players. Enter Michael Sam. When he takes the field at the end of next summer, he will be the first openly gay NFL player in league history (I want to emphasize openly, as some ex NFL players are gay, and almost assuredly some current players are as well). For a league known for its macho stigma, this is momentous.

The first wave of reaction has been overwhelmingly positive. There have been detractors sure, but the fact that the public support has been almost exclusively positive to this point, shows just how far we as a society have come in just the past few years. There will be many uncomfortable moments, and even hateful ones for Michael Sam, but this young man seems well prepared for whatever may come. This is story that brings a smile to the face, and from a personal standpoint, I have not been more pleased with a narrative surrounding the NFL in my entire life. One day stories like this won’t even be stories, but at a time when the Olympics, an event that is supposed to embrace, celebrate and champion the human spirit, is being held in a country that has made a political decision to be bigoted and close minded, this announcement becomes all the more important. There may not be a more consequential, or historic sports story all year. Hats off to Michael Sam. This is a great day for sport.

P(review)ing 2013 and 2014

As the curtain closes on another year, there is plenty of reason to look back on the highs and lows of 2013. In the world of sports there were plenty as always. Bayern Munich dominated European soccer in a historic manner. The U.S. Men’s National Team had their best year in history, which was doubly nice considering U.S. Soccer is celebrating 100 years of existence. The Baltimore Ravens weathered a Superdome blackout to win the Super Bowl in a rocking New Orleans. Nick Saban’s Alabama Crimson Tide won its second straight national title. They looked to be well on their way to a third, until an Iron Bowl for the ages that saw Auburn escape with a flabbergasting upset (oddly that word is appropriate there). Baseball saw the Pirates return to the postseason for the first time in two decades, a Cuban sensation light up the sport with immature antics and absurd skill, and the Red Sox go from yuck to yay on the backs of an undersized Japanese man and oversized Dominican one. Lebron James somehow became a better basketball player, and led his Miami Heat to their second consecutive championship, much to the chagrin of much of the country. Tiger Woods won five tournaments, but didn’t win a Major so was considered by many to be a disappointment. Roger Federer had his worst season in what seems like a lifetime, while his greatest rival Rafael Nadal had a comeback for the ages, taking home two major titles. The Blackhawks beat the Bruins in a matchup of Original Six members. A year after Kentucky won the NCAA tournament, Louisville took the 2013 title, proving that North Carolina has serious competition for best college basketball state. Phew. That was just the big stuff.

Enough of the nostalgia. As a sports fan, 2014 poses some big excitement and apprehension. All the usual suspects will be in play, including the NFL circus, the Heat’s quest for the elusive three-peat, a new season of baseball, and the madness of the NHL Playoffs. Tiger will look to get back in the major win column, and Fed will try to pull a thirties comeback. Despite all that sports appeal, 2014 provides some sizable add-ons from the typical calendar. The first big one comes February 6th with the Sochi Olympics. So far most of the press has been on the Russian government’s crackdown on gay rights. Much speculation has arisen about what will happen, and the ante was upped even further when the U.S. announced that Billie Jean King, tennis great, and openly gay woman, would lead their delegation to the games. Recent bombings in Volgograd have shifted focus from the gay discussion to the much more cheery possibility of terrorist attacks at the games. Nothing like hate and violence to get you in the mood for speed skating and ski jumping.

The other major event of the year appears to be more festive, but isn’t without concerns of its own. Brazil is a soccer country. However, it is also a country of political turmoil, and great wealth inequality. Those two identities came to a head last summer at the Confederation’s Cup. The Cup, which is essentially a mini dry run for the World Cup, featured mass protests and riots over the billions being poured into World Cup arrangements and construction, while many of the nation’s issues like education and overall infrastructure were being ignored. All signs indicate that more protests are likely to occur when the tournament kicks off in June. Concerns have also arisen over working conditions at the sites of the many new stadiums being built, most recently after two workers were killed in a crane accident this past November. The beautiful game sounds less beautiful in that light.

Despite the unease surrounding both Sochi and Brazil, both events are sure to have their thrill of sporting exciting and disappointment to go along with the political spectacles. The Russians will be looking for a good showing on home soil…or should I say snow. The Brazilians, coming off a convincing win in the Confederation’s Cup, will be desperate to replicate that success in front of their adoring, if often unruly fans. The most popular sporting event in the world will see the defending champions Spain vying for their fourth straight major international title, an unprecedented feat.

Maybe the other largest change coming in 2014, is the end of the BCS. Next season college football will be implementing a four team playoff to decide the national champion, after years of grumbling from fans, players, media, and often times coaches. By no means will the controversy be gone from the sport, but the new format should at least provide some appeasement.

2013 was a great year in the world of sport (even if my teams largely stunk). Here’s hoping that 2014 will provide more excitement, and less controversy. In the meantime have a happy and safe New Year’s Eve and Day!

(Pardon the worse than usual grammar. I blame the piña coladas, my noisy family, and the poolside setting. Vacation life!)