GUY RAZ, host:
The National Basketball Association took the unusual step this week of taking over the ownership of one of its teams. The New Orleans Hornets are off to a good start on the court, but off of it have been plagued by financial problems.
Sportswriter Stefan Fatsis joins us now, as he does most Fridays. Hi, Stefan.
STEFAN FATSIS: Hey, Guy.
RAZ: The Hornets - they've been something of a cursed franchise in the NBA, haven't they?
FATSIS: Yeah, you know, they started in Charlotte and eventually moved to New Orleans, and then they had to relocate to Oklahoma City for a couple of seasons after Hurricane Katrina. Then they moved back to New Orleans, but the ownership has been tumultuous for years. And finally, it's become financially unstable.
George Shinn, the majority owner, founded the team in 1988 - he was effectively pushed out of Charlotte in the early 2000s, after a sexual-assault civil trial there. And then in New Orleans, attendance and other revenue sources have fallen off - predictably, given Katrina and the economy.
The Hornets werent been able to repay millions of dollars in debt to the NBA. And when a deal to sell the team to a minority partner fell through, the league agreed to step in and buy one of its franchises.
RAZ: It's actually happened in baseball and in hockey, but is this new for the NBA?
FATSIS: It is new for the NBA, and now the question is: What's the NBA going to do about it? It's embarrassing, I think, for any league to have to do this. The plus side for the NBA is that they get to control the sale process for this team.
The league can wait for the economy to improve. And it can also wait for a new collective-bargaining agreement with players, which is likely to include more sharing of revenue among the leagues 30 teams - which might make it more appealing to a local buyer. The question is whether this market in New Orleans is viable in the long term.
In the team's first home game since this announcement earlier this week, just 10,000 fans showed up to watch the Hornets. That's about 8,000 empty seats.
RAZ: That's amazing because this is still a good team.
FATSIS: This is a very good team. They started out 11-and-1 this year. They've got a 14-and-7 record now. They've got one of best players in the NBA, the point guard Chris Paul.
Now if the local option fails, David Stern, the commissioner of the NBA, could sell the team to someone who might move them: Kansas City, Las Vegas, Anaheim, Seattle, a second team in Chicago. All of those have been floated as possibilities.
You've already seen a Russian billionaire come into the NBA, Mikhail Prokhorov.
RAZ: In New Jersey, right.
FATSIS: In New Jersey, right. Maybe we're going to get a Middle East billionaire next, like in English soccer.
RAZ: Maybe, indeed. Stefan, you mentioned a new collective-bargaining agreement. The owners and the players are currently negotiating that right now. How are things going on that front?
FATSIS: You know, not well. The current deal expires next June. There's talk of a lockout already. The league says that its teams are going to lose about $350 million this year. The league wants economic overhaul.
Proposals include reducing player salaries by around a third, imposing a hard cap on team payrolls, eliminating guaranteed contracts. The players have countered with proposals - some of them reported in the New York Times this week - that tinker with the system.
For instance, they would be willing to take a little bit less in league revenue that's earmarked for players, reduce guaranteed contracts to four years from five.
They do have one interesting proposal. In exchange for getting rid of the current age limit of 19 for coming into the NBA, which has been pretty controversial, the players' association suggests incentivizing players to stay in school. They haven't provided specifics yet, but that might mean basing salaries for rookies on how long a player has stayed in school.
RAZ: Hmm. Stefan, we have gotten this far without mentioning LeBron James. I'm sure some listeners will be happy about that. His new team, the Miami Heat, they were supposed to threaten the NBA record for wins in a season. That is -it's not likely to happen, is it?
FATSIS: Well, you know, to beat the 1995-'96 Chicago Bulls record of 72 wins and 10 losses, the Heat only have to win 58 out of their last 59 games.
RAZ: No problem.
FATSIS: No problem.
RAZ: So it's been a slow start for LeBron and Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, the big three who united in Miami in the offseason. It's been kind of embarrassing, I think: poor play, dull play on the court. But the Heat have won their last six games in a row by a total of 99 points, including a blowout in Cleveland last week, in which LeBron tortured his old fans with 38 points in his return to his home state.
It's early in the season. You know, schadenfreude was the primary emotion for LeBrons haters when they weren't doing well. They're going to have to find some other reason to hate him now.
RAZ: Stefan, thanks so much.
FATSIS: Thank you, Guy.
RAZ: That's Stefan Fatsis. He joins us most Fridays to talk about sports and the business of sports.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.