Sports - September 2005

Heels should put Bobcats on better footing with fans
By Chris Roush

The excuses must stop. The Charlotte Bobcats had the second-worst attendance in the National Basketball Association last season. The team and its apologists blame it on the city’s former franchise, on a poorly designed television package, on playing in an old building. They probably even blame it on Rio or the rain.

They need to face facts: This season, the team’s second, will say a lot about the NBA’s future in the Queen City. Elements necessary for success are in place. The franchise will play in a new arena, with two hugely popular rookies from UNC Chapel Hill’s national championship team as key players. If those factors don’t translate into a lot more fans in the stands, it would be hard not to conclude that Charlotte just isn’t NBA material anymore.

That conclusion would have seemed ridiculous in 1989 when a second-year NBA team with the fifth pick selected a Tar Heel in an effort to connect with its fan base. The team was the Charlotte Hornets; the player was UNC All-American J.R. Reid. In 31/2 mostly lackluster seasons, Reid never averaged more than 11 points per game, and the Hornets never made the playoffs. They finally traded him.

Back then, Charlotte was so crazy for pro basketball that Reid’s disappointing play didn’t matter at the gate. The Hornets sold out every home game from 1988 to 1995 — and might have even if they had drafted J.R. Ewing. As it turned out, the team built a playoff contender around its next three first-round picks: Kendall Gill, Larry Johnson and Alonzo Mourning.

The Bobcats have high hopes for their top two rookies, point guard Raymond Felton, the fifth pick in this year’s draft, and forward Sean May, the 13th selection. While team officials admit the presence of the two Tar Heels will help sell tickets to the large UNC fan base in Charlotte, they also have gone to great lengths to maintain that Felton and May were the best players available when they were picked. But then, that’s what the Hornets said when they drafted Reid.

The Bobcats can’t afford Reid-like performances from Felton and May. Zeal for pro basketball isn’t what it used to be in the Queen City and the Carolinas. Part of the blame lies with the hangover from the Hornets, who moved to New Orleans in 2002 after the team’s romance with Charlotte soured and fans turned their backs on owner George Shinn.

It was bad enough that he couldn’t resign the team’s best players. He also couldn’t stay off Court TV, which broadcast his civil trial after a woman he had sex with sued him. (The verdict went in his favor.) Then he and a partner tried to bully the city into replacing an arena built in 1988. Several players ran afoul of the law. But that happened years ago. It’s time for fans to get over it and for team management to stop using it as an excuse when interest in the Bobcats wanes.

After all, Bobcats management deserves much of the blame for the first-year failures. Through a series of errors, the team squandered a chance to build a fan base. The mistakes included what fans perceived as high ticket prices, an ill-fated attempt to add a surcharge on tickets and, maybe most damaging of all, airing most games on C-SET, a sports and entertainment channel created by team owner Bob Johnson. It was available only as part of a pricey digital cable-television package purchased by only about 40% of Time Warner Cable’s Charlotte division customers. “There just wasn’t the critical mass that we needed to make it work,” team President Ed Tapscott says.

What Tapscott is saying is that the broadcasts, essential in marketing a first-year team of unknowns and castoffs, reached far too few fans. Johnson, founder of the Black Entertainment Television network, pulled the plug on C-SET this summer. Plans are for regular cable to carry the games, though details have yet to be nailed down.

Assuming that happens, the team will be more visible. It definitely will have a more recognizable roster: Felton, May and Emeka Okafor, last season’s NBA rookie of the year, will be key players. Maybe most important, the Bobcats will move from the Hornets’ old home, the Charlotte Coliseum, into a new $265 million downtown arena, which the city agreed to build as part of the deal to land the team.

Not only should moving into a new home symbolically exorcise the last of the Bobcats’ demons, the novelty of a new arena should virtually guarantee a double-digit percentage gain in attendance. The Houston Rockets increased attendance by more than 13% a game after the Toyota Center opened in 2003. Two seasons earlier, the Dallas Mavericks boosted attendance by more than 18% in a new arena. The Bobcats’ downtown arena is smaller — 18,500 seats compared with the Coliseum’s 24,000 — but has more high-dollar luxury boxes and corporate seats. The team sold about 9,000 season tickets its first season but has been mum on how sales have gone for 2005-06. Nor has it revealed numbers for sales of luxury boxes and corporate seats. But even the arena has a downside: Many in Charlotte still resent that the city built it after nearly 60% of the voters rejected it in a referendum.

The team’s well-known draft picks could help shake North Carolina basketball fans out of their preoccupation with the college game, says Max Muhleman, a Charlotte sports-marketing consultant. “They are high-character kids who have not been in trouble. Right or wrong, I think that is a factor in the success of an NBA team in North Carolina.”

Chris Weiller, the Bobcats’ executive vice president and chief marketing officer, says the former Tar Heels’ on-court performance will determine how they are used to market the team. But he has made several other recent marketing changes. Last year’s advertising often focused on the opponents. For the upcoming season, ads will feature the Bobcats and the arena. “We now have a persona as a hardworking team that is never going to quit, and also we can pull out all the stops and market very aggressively our new home. Last year, we had to tiptoe around it a bit because we were still in the old arena.”

When management drew up its initial marketing plan nearly three years ago, it focused on the draft picks, Weiller says. “It’s always been about building from the ground up.” Now that the team has corrected some of its early mistakes, it still has to prove that its strategy of building through the draft will result in more fans in seats. And there’s one mistake the team might not be able to correct while it’s in Charlotte: starting an NBA team in a city that may no longer deserve one.