Shinnless In New Orleans

The interesting news story in the NBA the last week is the NBA’s purchase of the Hornets from George Shinn.  David Stern confirmed the purchase/takeover on December 6, 2010 but declined to state how much it cost to buy out Shinn, though Stern did confirm that “has been valued in excess of $300 million.”  The NBA will sit on the Hornets until a buyer can be found.  I thought we could breakdown the NBA/Shinn deal because what hasn’t been said speaks volumes about the mercurial tenure of Shinn as owner of the Hornets.

Before turning to the present day, one must understand where Shinn came from, as a person and as an owner.  In early 2007, we looked back at Shinn extensively but we’ll give you the nutshell version.  Basically, Shinn was a slacker in school who bounced around before investing in several small business school.  Eventually, the schools were consolidated and bought out and Shinn made somewhere near $50 million.  He then became a motivational speaker and his money and status helped him become majority owner of the expansion Charlotte Hornets, who debuted in the NBA 1988-89.

Shinn’s Hornets were very well supported by the Carolina fans for about a decade until he the local become less enthused.  First, Shinn dumped several very good young players (notably Alonzo Mourning) in order to avoid having to pay huge long term contracts.  His front office (Bob Bass notably) did a good job flipping Zo for Glen Rice.  But the Hornets continued flipping their stars when the contract extension time came.  Rice was traded for Eddie Jones and Jones was traded for Jamal Mashburn.  All the trades worked pretty well and the team continued to contend but the constant trading wore on the fans, particularly when the Shinn had other issues.  Shinn was agitating for a public funding of a new stadium (he wanted Charlotte to pay for about 66% of the cost).  At the same time, Shinn was engaged in a very public civil suit where he was accused of sexual assault and his defense was that the sex was a consensual extramarital affair.

Shinn won the civil suit in defiant fashion but the salacious details coupled with his continued trading of star players and demands for more public funding burned all bridges.  The Hornets, who routinely led the league in attendance throughout the 1990s, slipped to 11th in 1999-00 and then to 21st in 2000-01, (both teams were good teams).  Shinn and the city of Charlotte then had a nasty break up and he bolted to New Orleans for the 2002-03 season (the Hornets were last in attendance in 2001-02, their last in Charlotte, even though they went to the second round of the playoffs).

At this point, Shinn was surely not a favorite of Stern and the NBA.  In fact, the NBA implicitly recognized that the problems in Charlotte were mostly of Shinn’s making when the NBA almost immediately awarded the city a new expansion franchise.  Shinn had almost singlehandedly, through the force of his own grating personality, turned a great NBA market into a place that couldn’t support an NBA team.  Moreover, Shinn was going to a much less smaller and less appealing market in New Orleans.  New Orleans had failed to support the Jazz in the 1970s and it was questionable whether they had the fan base to support a team in the 2000s either.

Things started out even worse in New Orleans.  In 2003-04, the Hornets debut season in the Big Easy, the Hornets were 28th in the NBA in attendance, despite having a decent team.  The team fell apart in 2004-05 (18-64) and were last in the NBA in attendance.  Moreover, Shinn was sued for improper employment tactics (failing to pay overtime and intimidating employees) and for overstating ticket sales.  So, things were looking really bad and then Hurricane Katrina hit.  This was obviously an unspeakable tragedy but bought Shinn some time to fix his problems.  He moved the Hornets over to Oklahoma City for the 2005-06 season and presto…attendance shot up to sixth in the NBA.  The next season team split time between OKC and New Orleans and attendance stayed strong.

Ultimately, Shinn decided to return permanently to New Orleans and help try and rebuild the city.  But this would be quite a task.  In 2007-08, the Hornets went 56-26 and had Chris Paul blossom into a star.  The result was a team that finished 26th in the NBA in attendance.  There was some build up the next year and attendance jumped to 19th in 2008-09 but it fell back to 25th in 2009-10.  In fact, here is the Hornet year-by-year attendance averages since coming to New Orleans:

2002-03: 15,651 (19th in NBA)

2003-04: 14,332 (28th in NBA)

2004-05: 14,221 (30th in NBA)

2005-06: 18,9311 (6th in NBA but played year in OKC)

2006-07: 18,796 (8th in NBA played 35 games in OKC and 6 in NO)

2007-08: 14,181 (26th in NBA)

2008-09: 16,969 (19th in NBA)

2009-10: 15,058 (25th in NBA)

2010-11: 13,655 (24th in NBA through 12 games)

Now, Shinn has been trying to sell the team to local investors but the deal fell through and attendance is floundering again.  Rather than have Shinn sit with a money loser, the NBA has agreed to buy Shinn out.  David Stern has indicated that he is also looking for a local buyer but it is clear that the deck may be stacked against that happening.  So why did the NBA buy out Shinn?  The answer seems to be two-fold: (1) the NBA might have been concerned that he couldn’t afford to keep losing money and run the team and (2) they might’ve just wanted Shinn out under any circumstance.  The fact is that Shinn squandered the goodwill of Charlotte and bolted for a bleak market at the first chance when just a little waiting might have put him in a money winning situation (as his success in OKC indicates).

Unfortunately, moving to New Orleans created an inevitable time bomb down the line.  The city couldn’t support the NBA very well before Katrina and before the recession.  The day was bound to come and these other issues only accelerated the problem.  All this can be traced back to Shinn’s bad decisions, when the Hornets never should’ve left Charlotte to begin with.  Going forward, it may be tough to get a city to pony up for a nice arena in this economic environment but the Stern correctly intuited that the Hornet situation cannot be fixed one way or another until there is stable ownership.  So, the NBA invested in cleaning up a franchise for the greater good of the league.  A heavy price, for sure, but definitely worth it.

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