As April Fools Day dawned, the Charlotte Bobcats’ playoff aspirations were, for the first time in the franchise’s short history, no joke. The team was just a game behind the Chicago Bulls for the final playoff spot in the National Basketball Association’s Eastern Conference. But the improvement wasn’t just in the standings. The Bobcats, after struggling five years to attract fans, had sold out the two previous games. Problem was, only two of the team’s final eight games — and none of the last four — would be in Charlotte.
It mattered because the team’s record is much better at home. The Bobcats split those last two games at the arena — one a sellout and the other, with playoff hopes fading and fans recovering from UNC Chapel Hill’s basketball championship the night before, only 3,000 short — to finish with a 23-18 record at home. The playoff dream died at an away game at Oklahoma City on Good Friday.
Chalk up the untimely road trip in part to the other area in which the team has struggled — the bottom line. Majority owner Bob Johnson, whose Bobcats Basketball Holdings LLC operates the city-owned Time Warner Cable Arena, claims $50 million in losses since he spent $300 million for the franchise in 2003. That increases pressure on the parent company to fill the arena as often as possible. It scheduled two special events there in the last two weeks of the season: Playhouse Disney Live! On Tour and the Charlotte Jumper Classic, a horse competition started by Johnson, whose daughter is an equestrian.
That meant the NBA, when it made this season’s schedule last spring, had to work around those events. As it turned out, it reduced the chances of the team having home games when it most needed them and fan interest was at its height. “The dates the franchise is lacking are potentially among the highest-yield dates in the season,” says Max Muhleman, principal of Charlotte-based Private Sports Consulting Inc. and a former marketing consultant for the Bobcats.
But Bobcats President Fred Whitfield says the company must balance basketball needs against its responsibility to use the arena, paid for through a hotel-occupancy tax, to bring business to downtown hotels and restaurants. Many events — the horse competition, for example — are part of a larger circuit, which limits the company’s ability to move dates. But it’s trying to prevent a repeat of this year’s hoops schedule and has made the last game of the season one of three priority dates for home games next year. “Hopefully, we’ll get a much more favorable draw from the league and have more games in April.”