Can New Orleans Afford to Support NBA Team?

The NBA All-Star game will be played Sunday in New Orleans. The hometown team, the New Orleans Hornets, is doing better than anyone expected, although sadly, attendance at their games is one of the worst in the NBA.

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ANDREA SEABROOK, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Andrea Seabrook.

This weekend, New Orleans is at the center of the hoops universe. The NBA plays its all-star game tomorrow in New Orleans. The festivities have drawn basketball fans from around the country - and as a vote of confidence by the NBA in a city that's still recovering from Hurricane Katrina.

But as NPR's Greg Allen reports, the future of pro basketball in New Orleans is very much up in the air.

GREG ALLEN: On the floor, it's been a great season for the New Orleans Hornets. Their 36 and 15 record is the best in the Western conference. They're coming off a four-game winning streak going into the break. It's the best start in franchise history.

(Soundbite of basketball game)

ALLEN: Led by all-stars David West and Chris Paul, the Hornets are one of the NBA's top teams, but most nights you wouldn't know it from looking in the stands. The Hornets have been averaging under 13,000 fans per game, the second-worst attendance record in the league.

Forward David West said the lack of fan support can be disheartening.

Mr. DAVID WEST (Forward, New Orleans Hornets): Sometimes, but we know that it's going to be a process, man, because you've got a large segment of the population that's missing, and another part of the population that it may not be in their best interest to come and spend money here. So, you know, we've got to take all that into consideration.

ALLEN: Displaced by Hurricane Katrina, the Hornets relocated for most of the past two seasons in Oklahoma City. It's a place where they received a warm welcome with numerous sellouts and crowds nearly a third larger than what they've seen since returning to New Orleans.

Hornets owner George Shinn says he's dedicated to New Orleans and has no intention of moving the team elsewhere, but Shinn's also a businessman and recently renegotiated with Louisiana his lease at the New Orleans Arena, extending it to 2014. But at the same time, Shinn and the state added a clause to the contract, one that allows the Hornets to break its lease if the team doesn't average 14,735 fans through the end of next season.

That's led to speculation that the Hornets could move elsewhere unless fan support improves. Hornets president, Hugh Weber, says it's not a threat but part of a plan aimed at re-engaging the team with New Orleans fans.

Mr. HUGH WEBER (President, New Orleans Hornets): It's very achievable. If it was a number that was extremely high, I think people might have felt that it was not fair, but people looked it. It was a number that would put us literally last in the league in attendance. It was a number that this community has achieved before. What it really has done is gotten people engaged.

ALLEN: Part of the problem, Weber says, is New Orleans is a town with lots of entertainment options. It's also a town fanatically devoted to its football team, the Saints, and which last month was the site of two post-season college bowl games.

The Hornets have billboards all over town, but there's a further complication. Because of a dispute between cable companies, Hornets fans in New Orleans' northern suburbs have been unable to see more than a few games on TV.

But it all comes back to that same nagging question: In a town that's lost more than a third of its population, where many are still struggling to rebuilt their lives, do enough people here have the time and money to spend at a Hornets game?

Ben Lossage(ph) and his son, Phillip(ph), were at the arena last week to see the Hornets play the Memphis Grizzlies.

(Soundbite of crowd)

Mr. BEN LOSSAGE (Attendee, Hornets Basketball Game): That's a tough thing. I mean, for instance tonight - for me and him - it's $300 plus parking. I mean, a $400-day by the time it's all over, but I mean we got good seats, so we're kind of like we had no choice. But it's expensive, you know?

ALLEN: The Hornets countered that their ticket prices are well below the league average. There are plenty of $10 and $20-seats, and the team has made a concerted push to attract families with promotions and activities aimed at kids.

Still, because attendance was so low early in the season, to its attendance benchmark, the Hornets will have to average more than 15,000 fans through the rest of the season. Lossage thinks they'll do it.

Mr. LOSSAGE: Like the past couple years, it's been a rough spot, but you know, the Saints' season's over now. They can get behind them. I grew up going to Jazz games, and they were some of the best-attended games in the league, in the Superdome. So they can do it.

ALLEN: One thing that will help: an exciting that, if it stays healthy, should go deep into the playoffs.

In New Orleans even before this weekend's all-star game, there were signs that fan enthusiasm may be building. The Hornets last home game against the Memphis Grizzlies was the season's first sell-out.

(Soundbite of crowd)

ALLEN: Greg Allen, NPR News, New Orleans.

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