NEW ORLEANS – A potential Louisiana-based ownership group for the New Orleans Hornets is taking shape, and Gov. Bobby Jindal and Mayor Mitch Landrieu said Monday they are confident that Louisiana will be able to keep its NBA franchise.
"The big message is: The future of the Hornets in the City of New Orleans is in our hands," Landrieu said.
Landrieu and Jindal met in downtown New Orleans, along with regional politicians, business leaders and the heads of economic development groups and chambers of commerce to discuss the future of the franchise that majority owner George Shinn is selling to the league. Even James Carville and Mary Matalin, the celebrity political strategists who call New Orleans home, showed up to lend support.
Although there is little to stop the NBA from selling the club to new owners who want to move the team, league Commissioner David Stern has said that the goal is to try first to identify buyers who could help the team stay in the historic city that the NBA has taken an active role in rebuilding since Hurricane Katrina struck in 2005.
"We've got a number of business leaders that are more than willing to step up to the plate and help put a coalition together to buy the team and keep them in New Orleans," Jindal said. "I'm not worried about other communities or other potential purchasers at this point."
Among potential new owners at the meeting was Morris Bart, a local attorney who said he is willing to buy 10 percent of the team and added that outgoing minority owner Gary Chouest told him he is willing to buy back in for more than 50 percent.
Chouest, whose Louisiana-based business builds, operates and leases supply vessels to the offshore energy industry around the world, owns 35 percent of the team, which he is selling to the NBA after his negotiations to buy out Shinn fell through.
Chouest has declined to explain why negotiations with Shinn broke down, but still has his courtside seats next to the Hornets' bench and said last week that remains interested in doing what he can to keep the team from moving.
Bart added: "I'm aware of (Microsoft CEO) Steve Ballmer and those billionaires in Seattle who want to bring a team back there, but the message to them is: We're not giving up our team without a fight."
In the meantime, Jindal and Landrieu are campaigning for employers and residents to buy more tickets, particularly over the next month and a half.
The Hornets have a clause in their lease at the New Orleans Arena that would allow them to leave after this season if average attendance spanning a two-year period falls below 14,735. Doug Thornton, an executive with SMG, the company that manages the arena and Louisiana Superdome for the state, said the Hornets must average 14,883 for their next 12 home games to void the early exit clause in the lease this year.
Jindal said doing so would buy the state more time to work with the NBA on a long-term solution that would include not only a new ownership group but an amended lease and perhaps some state-paid improvements to the 11-year-old arena that could enlarge the team's revenue streams.
The governor stopped short of offering increased direct cash payments from the state, reiterating his opposition to siphoning off money from higher education and health care when the state is already in the midst of steep budget cuts.
The meeting, Jindal said, produced pledges from employers to buy blocks of tickets to give to employees or community groups.
Hornets team President Hugh Weber said the franchise was encouraged by the show of support.
"We're very appreciative of today's efforts put forth by the governor and mayor and continue to enjoy a great relationship and partnership with them," Weber said. "We will continue to build on our legacy on and off the court in New Orleans and provide a team the city can be proud of."
While Carville discounted himself as a potential owner, he said he thought it was important to join the public campaign to keep the team in place, not just because he is a basketball fan whose days at LSU overlapped with those of "Pistol" Pete Maravich. Carville said he didn't want to see the city's progress since Katrina marred by the loss of a major pro sports franchise.
"This is not just about a basketball team. It's not just a quality of life issue here in New Orleans," Carville said. "It's also about what kind of city we are. Now that we have real trajectory, real forward motion, I think it would be bad for the city to lose this team."
Jindal and Landrieu said it would also look bad for the NBA if the team left. One reason is that the state has invested heavily in the franchise in the form of a favorable lease in which the Hornets pay virtually no rent and receive all revenue from tickets and advertising, and all net revenue from parking and concessions in the state-owned arena. The state also has given the team tax credits worth nearly $5 million annually.
The lease also includes a provision in which the state pays the team if it fails to reach certain revenue benchmarks for ticket and suite sales. That payment could be up to $7.5 million this season.
Finally, the league has received good publicity from its role in helping New Orleans' recover from Katrina.
The governor and mayor said they believe Stern agrees on all of those points and is making a genuine effort to help them secure the Hornets' future in Louisiana long-term.
"It's never a comfortable a situation for the league to be in to have to relocate a team. They would prefer not to have to do that," Landrieu said. "Because of what New Orleans has been through and the incredible resilience of the people and how far we've come back, to me it would be a great success story if we were to keep them here and it wouldn't be such a good story if they had to leave. ... I think the only reason the team would leave is if there's no way to keep them here."