As it becomes more clear that the NBA plans to announce a takeover of the New Orleans Hornets -- possibly even this week -- the future of the franchise comes into question. The Hornets seem destined to fail to meet attendance standards included in the team's lease agreement with the state of Louisiana, and that means the franchise will have a green light to file for relocation by the end of February 2011.
If George Shinn owns the Hornets at that point, it seems like a foregone conclusion that he would open up bidding to NBA-thirsty markets that already have arenas. Without question, cities like Anaheim, Kansas City, Seattle and even Chicago could make attractive offers to the Hornets franchise -- certainly more attractive than what New Orleans currently offers the team.
That was what had been so promising about the specter of Louisiana businessman Gary Chouest purchasing the team from Shinn, as has been rumored since last spring. Chouest, a man with deep pockets and civic pride, was expected to buy the team and turn it into one of the league's top-spending franchises, a real financial competitor for the Dallas Mavericks and other rivals. But Chouest has pulled out, concerned about a potential 2011 NBA lockout and his own ability to devote time and energy to the enterprise. Unsurprisingly, no one else in New Orleans has the right combination of capital and inclination to step up.
If Shinn had zero loyalty to New Orleans, and Chouest had 100 percent, where does the NBA sit? Should the NBA execute a Hornets takeover, the biggest question will be whether the league will be seeking buyers who promise to keep the team in New Orleans for some span of time, or whether the franchise will go to the buyer who writes the largest check.
On the one hand, Stern has professed that he hates to see teams relocate, because he realizes that it essentially burns a market. Look at Charlotte. That was a fantastic market before Shinn, through penny-pinching and scandal, damaged it. Shinn's 2002 move to New Orleans killed Charlotte; the NBA quickly replaced the Hornets with Bobcats, but that franchise has struggled to draw, despite very obvious pandering to the Carolinas. Stern claims the Sonics' move broke his heart; cynics and Seattle natives can express reasonable doubt, but I believe the commish. While his attitude presented a big challenge for the arena talks there, Washington state politicians and quite possibly two-faced behavior from former team owner Howard Schultz soiled everything.
But consider the most important thing here: money. The league will be buying the Hornets in this takeover scheme. Not the NBA as in Stern and his buds -- the NBA as in the other 29 franchise owners. When Shinn receives his $300-million (or thereabouts) check, it's coming out of the bank accounts of those other 29 owners. As such, when the team is sold, that money will go back to those 29 NBA owners. This is, essentially, a short-term investment that attempts to guarantee the health of the league by removing a problem. Getting Shinn out of the league should help the NBA as a whole, provided he isn't replaced by Donald Sterling's evil twin. (More evil than Sterling? Save us, oh great Spaghetti cat.)
That said, given that the money will go back to all the 29 other owners, they will be deeply interested in the process of selling the Hornets. Or, put less discreetly, they will want the league to sell the Hornets to the highest bidder, whether that bidder is a champion for New Orleans or not. Cash rules everything in sports, and sentimentality over New Orleans will not be worth $5 million or $5 to most of these owners. That sounds cold, yes. But exactly two NBA owners voted against the Sonics move: Seattle's own Paul Allen and the Mavericks' Mark Cuban, who argued against the move to OKC because of market size. None of the owners will take heat as an individual for approving (or advocating for) a sale to an out-of-towner.
But Stern would, so it would be up to him to advocate on behalf of New Orleans, a city still clawing and scraping to pull out of its post-Katrina ruin. Does the NBA owe New Orleans another few years, to allow the city to keep on rebuilding, get back on its feet and support the Hornets as a city ought to support its team? Or would that just constitute throwing good money after bad? Is New Orleans lost as a two-team city, beholden to the Super Bowl champion Saints and no other team, ever again?
That's a tough Rubicon for Stern to negotiate. Selling the Hornets to an out-of-town buyer would be devastating PR for the commissioner's image and the NBA's reputation in small markets. But he could face a real owner revolt if he offers up the franchise to Louisiana-based buyers, assuming that means the Hornets are sold at discount. Neither reaction would be fair -- Stern has obligations to both his owners and the cities who have invested money, time and passion to his franchises. But, again, it's one hell of a tricky spot, and should the NBA go through with its takeover, it's coming within the next year.