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Hornets lay groundwork for return to New Orleans

March 25, 2007|From the Associated Press

NEW ORLEANS — Hornets ticket sales executives talk about rush-hour traffic clogging New Orleans-area highways as if it's a good thing.

"There's still a lot of people here," said Kevin Terry, the team's vice president of ticket sales and services, who commutes from suburban Metairie to team offices in a downtown high-rise.

"All you have to do is get on the freeway in the morning and see the traffic," he said.

Terry will be trying to fill seats at the New Orleans Arena during the 2007-08 NBA season, the first time the Hornets will play a full, 41-game home schedule there since Hurricane Katrina's flood waters swamped streets surrounding the stadium and ruined the very court on which the team once played.

The arena was cleaned up, a new scoreboard was installed and the court was replaced before the Hornets returned to play three games there in March of 2006. Since then, the Hornets have been getting back in touch with ticket holders in New Orleans, and in the last couple weeks have begun a drive to rebuild their fan base here for next season.

The results during the summer will give the team and the NBA a better idea about whether keeping the Hornets in New Orleans is sustainable.

On Friday, the Hornets will host the Los Angeles Lakers in New Orleans, the last of only nine games played in the city during the past two seasons.

The game sold out about a month in advance, and the Hornets' average attendance for six games in New Orleans this season will be slightly more than 17,000. But such figures are a lot easier to reach over six games than 41.

Right now, there are a lot of doubters. Yet Terry has found the area to be in better shape than he expected when he moved here a little over a month ago.

"There's a misconception out there right now that it's worse than what it really is," Terry said. "We've had candidates come in for sales positions and they think there's nobody in New Orleans, that there's high crime, and then they come here and they're really impressed."

Amid the stories of government ineptitude, flare-ups of violent crime and the painfully slow pace at which help is getting to some of the hardest-hit residents, there has been a steady building of encouraging news for those who've managed to return to this nearly three-century old port city.

Sometimes it's a major event, such as the rebuilding of the Louisiana Superdome, the reopening of the Fair Grounds thoroughbred horse track, or the return of traditional festivals like Mardi Gras and Jazz Fest.

Other times, it's slice-of-life tidbits like the reopening of a popular, century-old gelato and Italian pastry shop. Or it's the chance to once again order the unique bread pudding souffle at Commander's Palace restaurant, which took more than a year to reopen after wind and rain damage.

The Hornets are starting their outreach campaign with fans who bought six-game packages in New Orleans this season. Many of them had season tickets before Katrina, and rather than send them an invoice for next season, they sent gifts, including a leather portfolio with a signed player photo and a thank-you letter.

"We got calls from people saying we forgot their invoice, and we said, `No, we didn't,"' Hornets chief operating officer Hugh Weber said. "We are not going to do what traditionally teams do."

The invoices will go out eventually.

But first, the Hornets are working on reintroducing the team to area fans. Those efforts included a cocktail party planned for Thursday night to give six-game ticket holders a chance to meet players.

The Hornets will help rebuild a school gymnasium in a flooded neighborhood in the eastern part of the city, will host a fan event at the arena during the draft and likely will conduct summer basketball clinics in the area, team spokesman Michael Thompson said.

Weber said the team will host town hall-type meetings with prospective ticket buyers around the metro area, while offering a wide range of ticket prices and packages, many of which will include entrance to NBA All-Star events scheduled in New Orleans next season.

Season tickets will range from $430 in upper levels to $16,125 at courtside.

The Hornets also have 54 suites to sell, ranging in price from $105,000 to $170,000. Because a number of fans were displaced by the storm to outlying areas 40 minutes or more away by car, the Hornets are working on packages that include only weekend games.

It might have been easier to stay in Oklahoma City, where support for the team has been strong. But the Hornets' lease at the New Orleans Arena runs through 2012 and NBA commissioner David Stern did not want the lease broken.

In the meantime, the Hornets will be helping about 80 employees still based in Oklahoma move to New Orleans, joining about 20 who are already there.

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