The New Orleans Times-Picayune and TNT/NBA.com scribe David Aldridge are reporting that New Orleans Saints owner Tom Benson is buying the New Orleans Hornets for close to $340 million. The Hornets had been languishing ever since the league purchased them from George Shinn in late 2010. This was especially the case over the winter, when the team was forced to trade franchise point guard Chris Paul yet couldn’t get the most value in a trade because the league didn’t want large or lengthy contracts on the books. Benson won out over at least one other group including Los Angeles businessman Raj Bhatal and former NBA coach/player Mike Dunleavy.
Benson, who has owned the Saints for more than a quarter-century, is exactly the kind of local interest that David Stern and the other owners wanted to keep the team in New Orleans. The car dealership magnate was lauded in the 80’s and 90’s, then turned into a pariah as he demanded publicly financed improvements to the Superdome. When Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005, it wasn’t clear what the team’s future would be. Benson split his time between The Big Easy and San Antonio, where the Alamo Dome awaited with open arms. A large percentage of NOLA’s population left the area, making economic prospects bleak. The Superdome itself was hit hard, its roof skin torn off, its lower level flooded, and its interior and reputation damaged by some evacuees. FEMA and the Louisiana government came in and rehabbed the stadium for $180 million, which gave locals a rallying point and Benson an reason to stay. A few years later the team won the Super Bowl, the dome got a naming rights deal with Mercedes-Benz, and throughout it all Benson performed one of the greatest public relations turnarounds in the history of sports – thanks in no small part to a hurricane.
In buying the Hornets, Benson will get a long-term lease at the New Orleans Arena through 2024. Knowing that a local like Benson is now the owner should help bump up ticket sales, making the biggest weakness the team’s lack of a franchise player. Staked with the third-worst record in the league, perhaps they’ll sneak in and get the #1 pick in the NBA draft lottery. It was only a 11 days ago that Kentucky’s Anthony Davis dominated the national championship game in the Superdome. The team could eventually switch nicknames to something more befitting the city. Too bad the Jazz name moved with the team to decidedly not-jazzy Salt Lake City.
This news solidifies the team’s stay in NOLA, which was Stern’s biggest goal. Stern rebuffed overtures by Larry Ellison to buy the team, as Ellison was more interested in moving the franchise to San Jose. Now we’ll find out if New Orleans can be a basketball town in the long run.