SBJ/April 29 - May 5, 2002/Opinion

Last Hornets fan, please turn out the lights

Watching the Hornets soap opera unfold over the last two years from SportsBusiness Journal's Charlotte hub has provided its share of chuckles. For a while, Ray Wooldridge was good for one each time he flicked his forked tongue.

It is only now, when it appears NBA owners may indeed approve the flight of this mismanaged franchise from the city that once loved it, that the years of belly laughs have built into a sour stomach.

Everyone is at fault here. Wooldridge and George Shinn for their bungling and their duplicity. City leaders for their cowardice. Local business heads for their selfish, petty silence. The NBA for supporting extortion when cooperation would have sufficed.

Charlotte Hornets once led the NBA in attendance, but now lead in empty chairs.

If in the end the market that led the NBA in attendance for eight of its team's first nine seasons is left without a franchise, then shame on all of them.

To understand what has gone on here, you must fight through the noise and clutter, back to where the end began.

Though unrest over player turnover and an ill-behaved owner started the market toward instability, it was the NBA lockout that killed pro basketball in Charlotte. All the other factors have been irritants, blisters and boils on a carcass already bound for decay.

Estranged Hornets loyalists like to point to Shinn's extracurriculars with former cheerleaders as the origin of their disgust. But, mostly, Shinn's days in court gave disenfranchised fans an excuse for staying away. It wasn't that they'd lost their passion for the Hornets, or found more rewarding ways to spend their money. It was that darned, smarmy Shinn guy who was keeping them away.

It sounded good at the chamber meetings and the church socials and the Junior League luncheons, but it was a lot of rubbish.

What happened was this: When the NBA shut down in 1998, season-ticket holders in Charlotte realized they could find other ways to fill their nights. When some gave up their seats, others found it easier to get seats. Once it's easy to get seats, there's less impetus to buy them in advance — particularly when the arena holds 24,000, as the Charlotte Coliseum does.

The Hornets led the NBA in attendance from 1990 through 1997. The year before the lockout, they drew 23,406 per game. The year after it, they slid to 17,874 per game. Since then, it's been a loose ball rolling downhill.

None of this is meant to absolve Wooldridge and Shinn, the dim-witted duo that turned the NBA's most fervent market into a churning cauldron of bile. They'd have a lease in hand and a hole in the ground by now had they handled their arena negotiations better.

Wooldridge bargained for a new building the way a 6-year-old bargains when he hears the Good Humor bell ring: loudly, impatiently, jumping up and down and, eventually, storming off to his room and slamming the door.

His opening offer was that the city build him an arena and cede him all revenue. He offered to contribute nothing.

This was the new face of the franchise. Round, red, wearing a mask and toting a six-shooter.

The city told him to get lost. So he disappeared. He stopped selling in Charlotte and started a road show, offering the team up in Memphis, Louisville, New Orleans and St. Louis. If a high school in Butte had offered to clear the top few rows of bleachers and put in suites, Wooldridge would have declared Montana to be the NBA's next great frontier.

That's how it looked from Charlotte, anyway.

Let us explain this to you, Shinn and Wooldridge and anyone within sports ownership who thinks this is the way to do business:

You invite me to your house for a party. I come to your party. You're not there. I flip on the TV, and there you are, on camera in front of the house down the street, where they're throwing a party, too. You say it's the best party you've ever been to. In fact, you say it's way better than the party you were throwing. Your parties stink.

Three hours later, you come home, spit in my drink, and invite me back to your house for another party on Wednesday night, when the Bucks are in town.

This is how you treat your customers. And then, you wonder where they all went.

City leaders don't get a free pass, either. Letting the matter go to referendum was the coward's way out of a political hot box.

And the city's business community blew it, too. Charlotte is one of those boosterish towns that wants so badly to continue growing that it will follow its moneyed institutions down whatever path they choose. The business leaders wanted a new downtown arena for the Hornets, but they wanted it without Shinn and Wooldridge. So they stayed on the sideline, hoping Shinndridge would give up and sell the franchise at a cut rate.

They miscalculated. Now that the city has found support for an arena, it may lose the team that was to play in it. You can be sure it will cost Charlotte more to replace the Hornets than it would have to keep them.

This is a lousy outcome for Charlotte. And for the NBA. And for Wooldridge and Shinn, though they can't seem to see far enough to realize it.

Yet it appears to be the outcome that they will get. If the vote on relocation has not been taken by the time you read this, it will come soon.

Owners hate issues like this one, because it forces them to weigh self-interest against collective good. You won't find any of them who think leaving Charlotte for New Orleans is best for the NBA. But neither do they want to stand in the way of a fellow owner's desires, for fear that someone may one day stand in the way of theirs.

And they don't want to see Shinn and Wooldridge in court.

At the NBA's recent board of governors meeting, David Stern described the impending failure of the NBA in Charlotte as an "extraordinary disappointment."

It's even more disappointing up close.

Bill King is senior writer for SportsBusiness Journal.

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