Thursday, May 23, 2013

Dollars & Sense: NBA Rebranding in New Orleans and Charlotte

This week marks the beginning of the conference finals in the NBA playoffs – Memphis Grizzlies against the San Antonio Spurs (Spurs lead 2-0) in the west and the Miami Heat against the Indiana Pacers (Heat lead 1-0) in the east.  However, this week has been the week for the losers.  Between the NBA Draft lottery on Tuesday and the current rebranding efforts in New Orleans and Charlotte, the losers are becoming just a little bit more lovable.  Or at least they are trying to be anyway.

New Orleans Pelicans

The New Orleans franchise has been marred by weak performances over the years and even weaker stability.  Making their debut in the league as the Charlotte Hornets in 1988 alongside the Miami Heat, the Hornets were constantly struggling in their first three years.  Names like Larry Johnson, Alonzo Mourning, and Glen Rice helped build the franchise to the point where Rice led them to their first back-to-back NBA playoff appearances in the 1997 and 1998 seasons.

Rice, Bogues, and Mourning (

However, attendance and fan base found themselves in rapid decline after the 1997-98 season.  Dropping from their peak in the 1995-96 and 1996-97 seasons where they averaged 24,042 fans per game, the Hornets found themselves averaging only 11,286 in 2001-02.  That was the final straw for the franchise in Charlotte.

The Hornets relocated their franchise to New Orleans searching for greener pastures and greener wallets.  What they found was a relatively small increase in attendance though.  In the 2003-04 season, the Hornets ranked 28th in the NBA in attendance. 

When Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005, the New Orleans franchise split their time in Oklahoma City due to the destruction in their home city.  Though the Hornets played in Oklahoma City to wonderful attendance success – proven success that later aided the Seattle Super Sonics in their controversial relocation to Oklahoma City in 2008 – it was not their home town.

Now settled back into their home in New Orleans with a couple of high profile talents on their roster in Eric Gordon and Anthony Davis, the franchise is beginning to feel like they have an identity again.  One problem… The Hornets name is still from their Charlotte days.  They want their own.

Enter the New Orleans Pelicans.  Currently undergoing the transformation, the Pelicans are now official and awaiting game one of the 2013-14 regular season to show it off.  After walking away with the sixth pick in this summer’s NBA Draft after Tuesday’s draft lottery, the Pelicans will look to add some more fire power to their young squad.

The early stages of the transition from the menacing Hornets to the seemingly friendly Pelicans has been met with its fair share of criticism.  Is the criticism warranted?  It is tough to say because anybody can sit back and criticize when they have not been in the driver’s seat on this type of decision.   Let’s just give them their credit in that the logo designers made the most intimidating pelican possible.  And let’s be honest, the New Orleans franchise was doomed for a unfitting name when the Utah Jazz – Utah! – took the Jazz nickname.

Charlotte Hornets

After the Hornets left Charlotte for New Orleans in 2002, the city was left without an NBA franchise.  However, despite the declining attendance numbers that pushed the Hornets to New Orleans in the first place, the NBA saw potential.
The city was not without an NBA franchise for long as the Bobcats were born in 2004, two years after the Hornets left.  Expansion had been on the mind of the NBA for a little while, and Charlotte had supported a franchise in the past.  Had the NBA known the potential in Oklahoma City – potential that was not realized until after Hurricane Katrina in 2005 – maybe Charlotte would still be waiting for the NBA’s return. 

Problem was that bobcats are not really synonymous with the Charlotte areas, or many areas in the world, so the nickname seemed a little bit out of left field.  Sure it sounds fierce, but that is not the point.  In the NBA where there are so many classic team names - think Lakers, Celtics, Knicks, 76ers -  few people could envision the Bobcats (or the Pelicans for that matter) becoming a name of that stature.

But now, with the Hornets becoming the Pelicans in New Orleans, the window is now open for the Bobcats to return to their roots by switching back to the Hornets.  Basically, now instead of having two cities with confused nicknames, we have one wrong righted and one team still trying to figure it out and create their own identity.


Regardless of how you feel about the Pelicans or the Hornets or the Bobcats, one thing will always ring true: winning cures everything.  Look at the opposite end of the spectrum in Major League Baseball last season with the Miami Marlins.  Known as the Florida Marlins since their first season in 1993, ownership decided to rebrand the team with new colors, a new ballpark, a new roster, and a more geographically narrowed home in Miami prior to the beginning of last season. 

Of course, we all know that the Marlins went on to completely implode last year finishing in last place in the National League East and resulting in the fire sale of players this past offseason, and now they are terrible again.  Oh, and attendance is back to its pre-Marlins Park numbers.  If the Marlins would have kept winning, then maybe they could have build on the momentum of the new park and the infusion of talent.  Now that would have been a rebranding success.

What has become a relatively quiet rebranding success is the Winnipeg Jets in the NHL.  With a rich history in the WHA and then the NHL from 1972-1996, the Jets were a relatively successful franchise before being moved to Phoenix to become the Coyotes in 1996.  Never missing the playoffs in more than two seasons in a row in their NHL days, the Jets were always in it.  In 2011, the Atlanta Thrashers relocated to Winnipeg and brought the tradition back to life.

This past season, the Jets found themselves four points behind the New York Islanders for the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference, but they were certainly in it.  Also, and probably more importantly, the Jets averaged 100-percent attendance with just over 15,000 fans per game (remember that basketball attendance capacities in arenas are higher than hockey).  It is hard to ask for more from a team that just wrapped up their second season in a new city.

By now, it should be clear that the key to rebranding success for the Pelicans and the Hornets is to do exactly the opposite that the Marlins did.  Winning is a major player in building a loyal fan base, and winning is something that the Marlins are not doing but the Jets are.  Whether it is the NBA or the MLB or the NHL or any other professional sports league in the world, the formula is simple.  Just win, baby. 

Follow Kevin Rossi on Twitter @kevin_rossi.

No comments:

Post a Comment