Archive for Friday, February 15, 2008

New Orleans under scrutiny

All-Star weekend will bring city into NBA focus

February 15, 2008


— Reminiscing about record crowds and the excitement of working in the NBA should be expected from someone like Bill Bertka, a longtime scouting director for the Los Angeles Lakers.

Yet the topic of discussion wasn't all those Lakers championships. It was his stint as an executive for the New Orleans Jazz in the 1970s.

"It was terrific. I've never forgotten the raw enthusiasm, especially the second year when we went into the Superdome," Bertka recalled during a phone interview this week. "Of course, we had Pete Maravich, and Pete was on top of his game."

Attendance figures contradict common assumptions that the Jazz fled New Orleans because of a lack of fan interest. During three of their five seasons in New Orleans, despite never making the playoffs, the Jazz drew at or above the NBA average (which back then ranged between 10,000 and 11,000).

When the Philadelphia 76ers visited New Orleans in November 1977, a then-NBA single-game record crowd of 35,077 turned out.

"The New Orleans basketball fan is just as passionate as fans anywhere," Bertka said. "The critical thing is institutional support."

Many see this weekend's All-Star festivities as a launching point for fans in New Orleans to prove Bertka's point.

Attendance has been low since the Hornets' full-time return this season following a two-year, Hurricane Katrina-forced displacement to Oklahoma City. Sellouts have been rare despite the Hornets' 36-15 record and the emergence of Chris Paul and David West as All-Stars.

It's nothing like the euphoria that greeted the return of the NFL's New Orleans Saints, who have sold out all of their games during the past two seasons and have a season ticket waiting list of more than 25,000.

"New Orleans has always been a football-dominant type of city," said basketball Hall-of-Famer Gail Goodrich, who played for the Jazz in New Orleans and is now an NBA TV analyst. "So whether basketball can survive, there's probably still a lot of questions out on the table, and only time will tell."

Several factors beyond fan interest have complicated the Hornets' efforts to draw crowds.

Until a temporary resolution to a cable dispute was struck last weekend, the Hornets could not be seen on TV in suburban St. Tammany Parish, home to about 250,000 viewers.

New Orleans City Council President Arnold Fielkow joined with leaders from St. Tammany Parish to pressure the squabbling cable companies to reach a temporary solution, which they hope will become a long-term deal after the All-Star game.

"If we as a community are going to keep the Hornets, we have to try to get their games telecast in what is one of the most affluent and now highly populated areas in our whole state," said Fielkow, a former Saints marketing executive. "If we were to lose the Hornets, it would be a terrible black eye on the recovery of the community and we wouldn't likely get another NBA or any other sports franchise. We need to hold on to what we have."

Meanwhile, there are pubs in the heart of New Orleans where it's easier to watch Manchester United soccer games in Europe than the local NBA team because no satellite subscribers in the metro area can see most Hornets games. Cox Sports Television (CST), owned by the local cable company, has blackout rights and hasn't been able to work out a deal with satellite providers.


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