Attendance is down for the Pelicans. Their lease is up in 2024. The franchise needs to start changing. Now.
In 2010, George Shinn announced that he would be selling the then New Orleans Hornets after years of financial problems surrounding the franchise. After months of trying to find a buyer, the league stepped up in December of that year and bought the team. They announced they would run the team until they "found a single local buyer that would keep the team in New Orleans". But a lot of people were scared. If there were no local buyers that were willing to keep the team in New Orleans, they would be leaving. Whether they didn't want to buy a team in one of the smallest markets in the league or they wanted to move a team back to Seattle, the Hornets would be leaving the city. And while there were not many die hard fans, a whole generation was growing up with the Hornets as their favorite team. Kids all around the state were in love with Chris Paul. When he left everyone kind of just forgot about the Hornets. Nobody thought about them. It was like they didn't exist.
Then Anthony Davis came along. When the 2012 draft lottery concluded and it was announced that the New Orleans Hornets were going to be picking first in the draft, basketball came alive again in New Orleans. Everyone in the country had just watched this lanky kid from Chicago dominate college basketball like no one had seen in over 20 years, and he was going to be playing in New Orleans. But when the season came around again, the Hornets were still having trouble putting people in the seats.
Attendance actually DROPPED by 1,200 people per game (putting them at 29th in attendance) during Davis' rookie year, a number that should be unthinkable for a team that has the 'next big star'. The Hornets then went through a complete makeover. They changed the name from the Hornets to the Pelicans. They changed the uniforms, color scheme, arena name, and made huge adjustments to the roster during the offseason. Trading for allstar point guard Jrue Holiday and signing the ever misused guard/forward Tyreke Evans looked like a huge step in the right direction. They finally got someone to give AD the ball. Or so we all thought.
The promise of success had the Pelicans attendance rising from 29th to 21st, but the promise was quickly broken. While the team DID get better, Jrue Holiday only played 34 games that season to go with plenty of other injuries to key players on the team (Ryan Anderson missed 60 games; Anthony Davis and Eric Gordon each missed 20 games; Tyreke Evans missed 10 games). They finished the season with 34 wins and a ton of disappointed fans that weren't going to forget this slight against them.
Things changed the next season. While the team was still dealing with injuries (Jrue missed another 42 games; Gordon and Anderson each missed 20) it wasn't a major theme for the season. With a mostly healthy team, the Pelicans finished with 45 wins and a spot in the playoffs to face off against the Golden State Warriors. And you would think people would have been excited for this, but it didn't show in the attendance. While more people showed up for the games than during the previous season, they could not keep up with the progression of the rest of the NBA, dropping back down to 24th in attendance. And things started going back downhill from there. All three lead guards for the Pelicans (Jrue Holiday, Tyreke Evans, and Eric Gordon) suffered major injuries in the playoff series against the Warriors that would keep them out for an extended period of time (that leaked into the next season).
Combine these injuries with a coach change, an unmotivated roster, and a dead fanbase (after selling a record number of season tickets the Pelicans remained at 24th in attendance), and you've got a recipe for disaster. Finishing 30-52 on the season, everybody saw it as a completely wasted season. Not to mention they were going into the offseason with two of their key offensive weapons as free agents that were never going to look back at this franchise (Eric Gordon and Ryan Anderson). But the dwindling fanbase was still hopeful. The signings of Solomon Hill, E'twaun Moore, and Langston Galloway made the losses of Anderson and Gordon okay since they were seemingly just trading offense for defense. But now that the season is underway we're seeing that it wasn't a very good trade off.
Don't get me wrong, the defense is very good now. Top 10 in the league for stretches of this season, in fact. But the offense is dreadful. Miss the total lack of offensive skill with the absolutely dead offensive 'system' of Alvin Gentry, and you've got a recipe for losses. Attendance is down once again (a drop of over 1,000 people per game), and the losing isn't going to end any time soon. And this is what should be scaring people.
Low attendance combined with losing will always be a recipe for disaster. Every losing team in the league knows that it is. Because losing means less and less people want to watch your team, and when that happens attendance will continue to decline. And for a team that is already in the bottom 10 in the league attendance wise, losing can mean the end of the franchise. I mean, the reason the last owner of the team sold them was because of money problems.
Now the Benson family doesn't seem to be low on money at the moment, but Tom Benson is 89 years old and looks to be worsening by the day. Just a few months ago, Benson finally settled a lawsuit to prevent his estranged daughter and grandchildren from owning the Saints and Pelicans, instead leaving it to his wife Gayle, which you can read about here. But Gayle Benson has never owned or operated a business as large or prominent as a sports franchise. In fact, there are rumors that before she married Tom Benson she was in serious debt despite owning multiple interior design businesses in New Orleans. So we need to start preparing for the future.
"What can we even do?" you might be thinking. And honestly, at the moment, there isn't much. The Pelicans are bad and that isn't changing anytime soon. People don't want to watch a bad team, and can you really blame them? Very few people in the south even like basketball, so there's no chance that they would support a BAD basketball team. And there isn't really much anyone can do. $5 tickets can't even get people in the seats.
So pretty much in their current situation, the Pelicans are screwed. The only reason people have to watch this team right now is Anthony Davis playing like the generational talent that he is. But the more they lose, and the longer they stay at the bottom of the league in attendance, the less reason he has to stick around. And if Anthony Davis leaves New Orleans, the losing will only get worse. Terrible teams with terrible attendance records never work out. Just look at the Seattle Supersonics. Their last 5 years in the league they ranked 23rd, 21st, 23rd, 25th, and then 28th in attendance. Sounds pretty familiar, doesn't it?
We all want the Pelicans to stay. We all want the Pelicans to build a team around Anthony Davis that could potentially win a championship. But before they even get to that point they need to start winning even a few games. And they are so insanely far away from doing that it's scary. The entire front office needs a make over. The team needs to stop making terrible decision after terrible decision (firing the head coach after his team wins 45 games; drafting a 23 year old who plays the same position as your second and third best players; letting BOTH Eric Gordon and Ryan Anderson walk, the list goes on). And the team needs to work on getting the state to love this team like they love the Saints. It's all easier said then done, but they have to at least make moves towards getting better. If they don't do that then things are only going to continue to get worse. And if attendance stays low because the team keeps losing, you can't expect the Benson's to want to keep the team (especially after Tom Benson passes). It already took almost a full year to find a buyer for the Hornets once, and it was only bought because the richest man in the state of Louisiana already owned the Saints, so there was no reason for him not to buy the Hornets. This time they may not be so lucky. With the Pelicans' lease on the Smoothie King Center up in 2024 there isn't much time to turn things around. If the team is sold before the lease is up or renewed, then a potential new owner could move the team out of the city in less than 8 years. And that should be terrifying for Pelicans fans. With potentially less than 10 years left with a basketball team in New Orleans, it's time to try to enjoy them while they're here.