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.