Oklahoma City: The Hornets Came, But They'll Be Back...

Michael VenningCorrespondent IMarch 12, 2008

Pick a city.  Any city.  How about any city with a regional population of around a million people?  Try, say...Oklahoma City.  Then try building an arena in the downtown area, close to the restaurants, the canal, the river, the freeway, and the metro transit system.  How about an arena as large as the Los Angeles Lakers' Staples Center?  Yes, that's right the Ford Center in downtown Oklahoma City can seat 20,000.  Just like the Staples Center. 

Did he say, "Just like the Staples Center"?  Well, actually he did.  You see, I was there on opening night for the Oklahoma City Hornets.  They played the Sacramento Kings and had so much emotion and excitement going in that arena that they didn't even score for the first three minutes of the game.  And the crowd thanked them by...sitting down!  Yes, the crowd, all 19,163 fans (a sellout at the time in that particular configuration) were standing from the National Anthem to the player introductions to the tip-off through the next three minutes. 

They ended up blowing the Sacramento Kings out by 26 points.  And the crowd wouldn't shut up about it!

Oklahoma City fans didn't know any better.  They're a college type of town.  They get excited for their teams.  I know, it's a shocker, but they were actually into the game.  They cheered loudly for the Hornets and they booed when the other team did something well or the referees didn't.

I've been to other professional sporting events around the country and I have never seen anything like it.  Noise from start to finish.  Excitement throughout the game.  "But that was just Opening Night", you might say.  Well, how about two weeks later when I went to another game.  Yes, well it was another sellout, another win, and another sore voice for all involved.  You see, when everyone around you is yelling for your team, you're a lot more likely to do it yourself.  Oklahoma City was that type of host for the Hornets.  Two years of mostly sellouts.  Two years of true FANatics!

Then they left and went back to New Orleans.  Honestly, at the time I thought that was where they belonged; it was the right thing to do.  However, the city of New Orleans has proven me wrong.  One of the best records in the NBA.  One of the best players in the league (Chris Paul for MVP, anyone?).  High scoring games and emotional players.  Yet, an average of 13,925 fans are showing up for this incredible team.  Unfortunately, that's 13,925 documented fans.  On the television, it sure looks like a lot less than that are actually showing up.  When most of the lower level is half full, it's not a good sign.

I'm not blaming New Orleans for this; I'm just stating a fact.  It's likely that the locals have more to worry about and definitely a lot more to pay for.

I was in New Orleans about two weeks after Hurricane Katrina as part of the relief effort.  It was and still is, in most respects, a mess.  It's not the local residents' fault that the Hornets are not being supported by fans or local business sponsorships.  It's just a fact.  Meanwhile, one of the best teams in the league is going largely unwatched by their own fans.

Am I the bad guy to say that the Hornets should be somewhere else?  Or, am I the realist?  The people of that city don't have the fiscal capacity to support an NBA franchise and an NFL franchise.  Eight home games for the Saints is a lot easier to fill than 41 home games for the Hornets, regardless of the stadium versus arena capacities argument.

New Orleans simply can't do it.  They're proving it every night when a good team like the San Antonio Spurs come to town and the announced crowd is five percent under capacity.  That’s a paltry 16,319.  Compare that to an enthusiastic crowd of 20,000 in Oklahoma City.

Yes, I was there when they first came to OKC.  Yes, I got a stinkin' t-shirt.  And yes, I'll be there when the Hornets move back to the Ford Center to a rockin' sellout crowd that refuses to sit down until the first Hornet basket is scored.