Attendance will keep Hornets in lease

NEW ORLEANS -- Political leaders celebrated a successful campaign to meet attendance benchmarks that will prevent the Hornets from leaving New Orleans after this season, then asked fans and the business community to do what they can to prevent annual nail-biting over the NBA's future in the Big Easy.

"Today's a great step forward but we're not done yet," Gov. Bobby Jindal said in a news conference at the New Orleans Arena on Monday, shortly before the Hornets hosted the Oklahoma City Thunder. "We cannot become complacent. ... We've got to continue to be vigilant in supporting the Hornets and keeping them here."

Jindal, along with New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu and leaders of surrounding parishes said they were working together with area businesses to boost the Hornets' season-ticket base from a little more than 6,000 back to the 10,000 range, where it was for the 2008-09 season.

The Hornets' lease runs through 2014, but if attendance falls below an average of 14,735 for a two-season period, the Hornets may opt out. The period for calculating the two-season average closes at the end of each January.

Small crowds earlier this season opened the possibility of the attendance benchmark being missed, but fans and businesses responded to calls by political leaders to buy more tickets. A sellout for Saturday night's Hornets victory over San Antonio virtually assured the benchmark would be met on Monday night, when team officials said there would be another large crowd.

The spike in attendance coincided with the NFL's Saints being knocked out of the playoffs and the Hornets going on an eight-game winning streak that has put them firmly in playoff contention.

Uncertainty over the Hornets future in New Orleans grew when the NBA purchased the club from founder George Shinn and minority owner Gary Chouest for more than $300 million earlier this season. The league wants to resell the club, although officials concede it may be tough to find a buyer until a new collective bargaining agreement has been reached with the NBA Players Association.

The NBA appointed New Orleans native and sports attorney Jac Sperling as its caretaker of the club, and he joined political leaders for Monday's announcement.

"I grew up in New Orleans and I'm back here specifically to do what I can to help the NBA see if they can find a way to keep the Hornets here for years to come," Sperling said. "It's inspirational, I think, to say the least, the support the mayor and the governor and all the business leaders behind us have been able to generate. The fans have been spectacular. Our players feel it. I think the league feels it."

Sperling and Jindal said there have not yet been any serious negotiations about changing or extending the lease. However, both said they've had casual discussions about what can be done to strengthen the team's long-term viability in south Louisiana.

Jindal has said previously that while he won't divert public funding from state obligations such as higher education and health care to the Hornets, he is willing to consider enhancements to the state-owned arena and amendments to the lease that could enhance team revenues.

The Hornets moved to New Orleans from Charlotte in 2002, then were displaced to Oklahoma City for two seasons after Hurricane Katrina struck in August 2005. They returned for the 2007-08 season.

Hornets president Hugh Weber said he was optimistic the team could succeed in New Orleans for "generations," in part because the club did well at the gate two seasons ago, and in part because of the recent surge in support.

"When we returned after the storm, there was a lot of conversation to be had in the community about what our priorities were and whether a basketball team was one of them, and I'm very gratified to see the effort that's been happening," Weber said. "We all agree this is an important asset to this community. It's a community treasure and we all need to work together to fight hard to make sure we have a long-standing tradition here."

With the nation trying to emerge from an economic recession, Jindal said he understands it is a challenging time for some to increase spending on pro sports, but said the support for the Saints shows it can be done.

"You've got a waiting list of people to buy Saints tickets, so clearly people are very good at supporting their teams here in New Orleans through good times and bad," Jindal said. "What the NBA wants to see is, is the business community willing and able to support keeping the Hornets here for the long term through good times and bad?

"I met with a lot of those business leaders and they indicated they were willing to do it," Jindal continued. "They said, 'We're willing to get involved in ways we haven't been before to buy tickets for employees, customers and the community.' "