NEW ORLEANS – The NBA's appointed governor of the Hornets stood in one of New Orleans' historic homes near City Park, in a room where large wood-framed windows were adorned with luxurious curtains long enough to touch the hardwood floors.
Speaking over the pounding of nails and the scream of power-saws emanating from a renovation next door, Jac Sperling explained why the NBA's effort to keep the Hornets in this rebuilding city is moving into the homes of the team's biggest fans.
The club needs to build its season-ticket base from a little more than 8,000 to around 10,000 by the fall, Sperling said, in order to gain the confidence of potential local buyers who've said they'd be interested in operating the Hornets in Louisiana long term — if revenue streams can be improved.
So the Hornets are enlisting season ticket holders to host social gatherings in their homes, during which they will try to persuade friends and business associates to join them in supporting the club.
"I am really optimistic because this is a city where a lot of things happen in people's living rooms, and front porches and their back yards. I know that. I grew up here," Sperling said. "There's nobody who can convince someone else of the validity of some action better than a friend in a social situation, and that's what we're counting on."
Specifically, Sperling said the plan is to help fans host 100 such gatherings within the next 100 days, by which time the team hopes to have sold an additional 2,000 or so season tickets.
"If we get to 9,800, is that going to be good? Probably," Sperling said. "We've had very casual discussions with people you can characterize as local buyers who would like to keep the team here, but we haven't engaged in anything serious because we're waiting until we kind of get the financial situation in a more improved state, and season tickets is a part of that."
The NBA purchased the Hornets in December from George Shinn, who founded the club in Charlotte in 1988, then moved it to New Orleans in 2002. Shinn, who moved the team back to New Orleans after being displaced to Oklahoma City from 2005-2007 because of Hurricane Katrina, tried last spring to sell the team to minority owner and Louisiana native Gary Chouest.
When those negotiations stalled, the league stepped in to avoid having Shinn sell to other prospective buyers who would have preferred to move the franchise.
Since taking ownership of one if its teams for the first time in league history, the NBA has sought to, in Commissioner David Stern's words, "polish it up" for a more permanent owner who would be interested in operating the team in Louisiana.
"Back in December, when the NBA purchased this team ... they could have sold it to a lot of people who wanted to move it," Sperling said. "They didn't do it. They hired me, someone from New Orleans, to try to figure out a way to try to keep the team here. So I think if you read between the lines — it's probably not so between the lines — the NBA would like to find a way to keep the team here. It's not guaranteed. We have to make it financially attractive to a local buyer."
Hornets team president Hugh Weber said the NBA historically has viewed a season-ticket base of 10,000 as the sign of a healthy franchise. The Hornets surpassed that number in 2008-09, one season after they returned to New Orleans from Oklahoma City and came within one victory of advancing as far as the Western Conference finals.
Weber said the local economy appears to be in better shape now than it was three years ago, and that it is reasonable to believe there are enough people in the metro area with the means to help the Hornets reach their goals.
"Ultimately a new owner is going to decide what is worth the risk," Weber said. "It's my job and Jac's job to take all the risk out of it for them. I'm telling our staff internally that failure is not an option."
Jazz trumpeter Irvin Mayfield is among those who've already volunteered to host prospective season-ticket buyers in his home.
"The thing people have to remember about basketball is, it's a classic American game. And I think what we have to remember in New Orleans is, we talked for years about how we lost that cultural phenomenon," Mayfield said, referring to when New Orleans' first NBA franchise, the Jazz, moved to Utah in 1979. "Every time I see the Utah Jazz, it just (ticks) me off. ... We have to be concerned with not repeating that type of history."