The New Orleans Hornets made unexpected headlines during the first few weeks of the NBA season. A consensus pick to miss the playoffs after finishing last in the Southwest Division a season ago, the Hornets instead set a team record by winning their first eight games and appeared ready to emerge as a contender in a loaded Western Conference.

The Hornets have cooled off after that hot start (they are 13-7, including just 2-6 in their last eight games) but remain in the news, albeit for all the wrong reasons and for something that comes as far less of a surprise than their 8-0 start. NBA Commissioner David Stern said Monday, December 6 that the league will buy the Hornets from beleaguered owner George Shinn and operate the franchise until another owner steps forward and buys the team, which Stern said is worth more than $300 million.

While Stern said he hopes to find a local buyer, former minority owner Gary Chouest has already declined to purchase the team. Given New Orleans’ market size and its economic struggles since the devastation of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the Hornets seem to be a prime candidate to be sold to an out-of-town owner who will relocate the franchise, much like Clay Bennett did when he bought the Seattle SuperSonics and eventually moved them to Oklahoma City, where the team was renamed the Thunder.

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The Hornets’ future in New Orleans is particularly tenuous because of a clause in their lease at the New Orleans Arena allows them to break it and pay the state a $10 million relocation fee if the Hornets’ attendance slips below 14,735 during a two-year period. The Hornets averaged 15,072 fans per game last season at the 17,188-seat Arena — down from 16,969 in 2008-09 — and are averaging just 13,861 this year, which works out to a two-year average of 14,467.

The Times Picayune recently reported that the team must average 14,213 fans over a span of 13 home games — a stretch that began Wednesday, December 1 and runs through Monday, January 17 — in order to avoid triggering the clause. That figure is higher now after the Hornets drew just 10,866 fans for their game against the Charlotte Bobcats (located in the city the Hornets called home until the end of the 2001-02 season) December 1 and 14,020 for their game against the New York Knicks Friday, December 3.

A departure by the Hornets would surely spell the end of professional basketball in New Orleans, which lost the Jazz to Utah in 1979, but the stagnant economy, a lack of cities eager to welcome an NBA team and the specter of an extended work stoppage in the league could leave the NBA no choice but to keep the Hornets in New Orleans. Las Vegas and Kansas City have been mentioned as possible destinations, but the NBA is reluctant to expand to a city in which sports gambling is legal and Kansas City already lost the Kings to Sacramento in 1985.

“I think that keeping the franchise there is good for the city and good for the fans,” Ken Solky, owner of Las Vegas Tickets told TicketNews. “If someone is going to step up and look out for their financial well-being and give them a home, God bless. Things didn’t work out so bad for Oklahoma City, but I’m not sure what city is ready for 16,500-plus a game times 41 games. I don’t know who’s ready for three-quarters of a million fans over six months at the prices that they’re asking.”

Despite the sinking attendance figures, the Hornets instituted a variable pricing plan this season in which they charge more for tickets to games against the likes of the Lakers, Spurs, Boston Celtics and Miami Heat. The Hornets also maintained their average ticket price from a year ago, making them just one of the 11 NBA teams that did not lower prices this year and one of only two that did not make the playoffs last year.

A move out of New Orleans would just be the latest bit of tumult to hit a franchise that has been star-crossed since its debut season in 1988-89. The Hornets, which have never moved beyond the second round of the playoffs, spent just three seasons — under three different coaches — in New Orleans before Katrina forced them to relocate to Oklahoma City for two seasons. The Hornets won a team-record 56 games and their first division title upon returning to New Orleans in 2007-08 but slumped to 37 wins last year, the franchise’s second-lowest total in a full season since 1992-93.

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