Why Charlotte Is Moribund As An NBA Market

George Shinn, the last NBA lockout and arena politics inherent in small markets conspired to kill Charlotte as an NBA market by 2001. To resuscitate the Queen City, Michael Jordan needs to get what he wants.

Weeks ago, Michael Jordan emerged as a hardline owner in the NBA lockout, reportedly leading a cabal that refused to go beyond a 50-50 revenue split in negotiations and actually wanted to be more aggressive than the pitbull-intense the league has already presented.

Were his name Jordan Michael, and were he a M&A specialist from Wall Street who bought the Charlotte Bobcats as a reclamation project, no one would raise an eyebrow. Charlotte is exactly the type of market that struggles in today's NBA. The Bobcats are not good, and when a small market NBA team is not good is seems practically impossible to turn a profit. Were the Bobcats good, financial success would still be difficult -- payroll expenses would be expected to grow, but you can only add so much revenue year-over-year -- and would be fleeting. The position that a franchise owner in Charlotte has in this stalemate is almost required to be on the hard line.

The dissonance came from Jordan's previous career -- Greatest Basketball Player Ever -- and his aggressive role in previous NBA labor battles, most notably a 1998 exhortation to Washington Wizards owner Abe Pollin to sell his team if he couldn't afford it. Jordan can't afford the Bobcats, and no one can make money on the team, which really means that in an economy where few have patience for losing bets, no one can afford the Bobcats.

But it didn't have to be this way in Charlotte. The city was once a beacon of hope for smaller markets in the NBA, proof that with some on-court success, a rabid fan base and some key sponsors, success was possible outside of Boston, New York, Chicago and Los Angeles.

What happened?

GEORGE SHINN

George Shinn brought Charlotte into the NBA in the grand expansion of 1989. Like the Miami Heat and Orlando Magic, Charlotte met with pretty quick success. It took just five years for the Hornets to break .500; meanwhile, the Charlotte Coliseum was packed just about every night. From the team's second season through 1996-97, the Hornets were at 99 percent capacity or greater every year. Charlotte even had a 364-game sellout streak in there, a great mark considering that the Coliseum was much bigger than some NBA arenas (with a maximum capacity of 24,042).

In 1998, attendance dropped a bit, as the team lost about 1,000 fans a game. The Hornets were still excellent, going 51-31 on the season. But something had changed. It got worse. In 1998-99, attendance fell below 20,000 a game despite the team remaining above .500. In 1999-2000, the turnstiles clicked fewer than 18,000 times a game, despite a 49-33 record. In 2001, just 15,000 showed up each night. In 2002, attendance sunk toward 11,000. By the next season, the Hornets were playing their home games in New Orleans.

What happened?

Charlotte-hornets-tz_medium

Shinn happened. In 1997, he was accused of sexual assault. A trial was broadcast nationally, drawing huge attention. While Shinn was eventually exonerated, more nasty stories came out, and the Hornets owner had admitted to having affairs, including with one of the team's cheerleaders. The trial was a huge embarrassment for not only Shinn, but Charlotte. It alienated Shinn from the community; in a 2008 interview with the Charlotte Observer, Shinn admitted that he basically stopped trying after the sexual assault charges.

In a small market in the NBA, you can't afford to stop trying. You can have good talent (as the Hornets always did), you can have passionate fans. But you can't afford to stop trying to fill every seat, reach every set of eyeballs. There's no luxury of comfort.

Shinn learned that the hard way. It didn't help that the 1998-99 lockout came as Shinn's sexual assault case reached notoriety, and it really didn't help that Shinn began agitating for a new taxpayer-funded arena to replace the 10-year-old Coliseum. With the lockout, the NBA pissed off fans. With the sexual assault, Shinn embarrassed fans. With the arena demands, Shinn insulted fans. That's a holy trinity of bad mojo; as you can see in the chart above, attendance tanked despite continuing on-court success. Charlotte was dead as an NBA market.

EXPANSION

Well, Charlotte wasn't dead, because Robert Johnson, the CEO of BET, wanted to re-animate the market. In 2004, he was able to do so. David Stern has a set of interesting relationships with cities that get screwed by their NBA team owners. Stern did nothing to stop Shinn from bleeding Charlotte to near-death, and he rammed through the relocation to New Orleans (a small, troubled market before Hurricane Katrina, one that had already failed once). But he maintained a sort of public sympathy for Charlotte, which he considered to be an NBA city. (Three hundred and sixty-four sellouts don't lie.) He's done the same to Seattle: he did little to bridge the gap between legislators and Clay Bennett, but he seems to indicate regularly he'd like the Emerald City to return to the NBA. (One could effectively argue that even Kreskin couldn't convince Washington state politicians to play along.)

Expansion-teams_mediumStern let Charlotte bleed under Shinn, but tried to correct the mistake by adding a franchise there in 2004. But expansion in the NBA is not easy, even compared to other leagues. The chart at right shows the average time it takes an expansion team in each league to have a winning season, using data going back to the mid-1990s. The NBA presents the longest timeframe: an average of 6.3 seasons. 

And it makes sense, doesn't it? In no league do individual players matter more than in the NBA. You need stars to even break .500, except in special cases. How do you get stars? You draft them, you sign them or you trade for them. True superstars are rarely traded, and then only with the threat of free agency. If you're an expansion club -- Toronto excepted -- you're likely a smaller market; in the NBA, smaller markets tend not to have success signing superstars outright. (This lack of free agent success for small markets affects the trade possibilities, given the constraint that most superstar trades come under duress of pending free agency.)

So there's the draft. If you get unlucky in or botch the draft, of course it will take you a while to succeed. The Vancouver Grizzlies, who needed nine seasons to break .500, botched the draft. Word up to Big Country. The Raptors did well in the draft (Vince Carter), and came on more quickly. The Bobcats have managed to be both unlucky in (getting the No. 2 pick in 2004, with Dwight Howard sitting atop the pack) and botch (Adam Morrison) the draft.

It took the Bobcats six years to make the playoffs; even then, they hired a pricey coach, mortgaged part of the team's future and crashed right back into the lottery. The team's hope now lies in Kemba Walker and Bismack Biyombo. No offense to those fine young gentlemen, but it's hard to see the Bobcats escaping their expansion nightmare any time soon.

The real problem is that expanding back into Charlotte did nothing to rekindle old emotions. Attendance has been pretty bad for the Bobcats, even in the team's debut season. Shinn had a good team with passionate fans, and killed the market. The NBA's problematic expansion process failed to resuscitate the Queen City. It's time is truly running out.

THE SALVATION

When you look at it this way, Jordan's lockout stance is easy to understand.

That's really a part of the lockout that's hard to accept, especially for those of us who are strong supporters of organized labor in all of its forms. Some of these owners are bad people. Shinn seems to have been pretty awful. He's gone, but for every bought-out Shinn, there's happily-making-money Donald Sterling. And for every honest-to-goodness terrified Peter Holt, there's a billionaire-with-his-hand-out like Herb Simon. I'm often guilty of focusing on the outrageous (like Paul Allen bitching about high payrolls) at the expense of legitimate concerns.

Jordan has legitimate concerns. Charlotte cannot survive without a revamped system that draws down costs and shares more revenue. (One could accurately argue that players have already conceded plenty to draw down costs, and that MJ needs to address revenue sharing with his buddies in New York and L.A. But I digress.) Charlotte deserves basketball. The city's fans proved themselves in the 1990s, before one of the bad apples ruined it all. If a new deal can make the NBA as feasible in Charlotte, New Orleans, Salt Lake City and Sacramento as it is in Chicago, Boston and Dallas, then it will improve the league.

The league just needs to realize that the deal that achieves that has already been offered by players, and that holding out for relatively silly salary cap items endangers the fan support in small markets that the NBA is so desperately trying to save.

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