Jac Sperling Rumors
Prospective owners from other cities were circling, looking to snatch away the Hornets. The NBA was on the verge of a lockout. The league didn’t want to run the team long. They needed a local buyer and yet none seemed willing. Interest in the Hornets was low. Local fans figured the NBA was as good as gone. Something had to change fast or even Stern wouldn’t be able to keep the Hornets there. “I was operating under the assumption that if the plan didn’t work the team would move,” Jac Sperling, the sports executive recruited by the NBA to run the Hornets, told The Vertical. “Everyone on our staff thought that, too.”
The Hornets had sold just 6,300 season tickets the season before, a number well below the 10,000 that is considered the industry standard for franchise stability. Sperling and Weber quickly realized that after negotiating a new lease and cutting a better television deal, they had to find a way to sell 3,700 more season tickets. If they could do that they were sure the league would see New Orleans was viable and perhaps it could find a local owner.
That’s when they thought of the house parties. The concept of sales events are not new in sports. They are usually called “influencers” and have proven effective at creating a bond between team executives and potential season-ticket buyers. Often teams hold these in sterile settings like hotel meeting rooms. But what if instead of meeting rooms the Hornets held influencers at people’s homes? “The idea was to get into people’s homes face-to-face and convince them that the team was going to stay,” Sperling said. He imagined people gathered on a big New Orleans porch, drinks in hand, talking about the city. It was perfect, he thought. Someone suggested holding 100 parties on 100 nights, a round number they thought would generate enthusiasm. Everyone agreed that sounded right. With a lockout coming it wasn’t like they had anything else to do.
Finally, on Dec. 8, the day the lockout ended, the team and Mitch Landrieu, the mayor at the time, held a news conference to say the Hornets had sold 10,019 season tickets. A goal that once seemed impossible had been met. “The city of New Orleans came together and sent a message to the NBA that we’re in,” Landrieu said that afternoon.
Two groups have been identified as in bidding for control of the team, a California-based consortium led by swimwear manufacturer Raj Bhathal, in union with Larry Benson, Mike Dunleavy, and potential New Orleans-area minority investors, and former Hornets minority owner Gary Chouest. The Bhathal group, according to sources, is believed to be the one in the lead, as characterized last week by Stern, with Chouest as a backup. Hornets chairman Jac Sperling, the New Orleans native whom Stern appointed to provide stewardship for the franchise, improve its troublesome economics and broker a sale that would provide long-term viability and stability here, has been simultaneously negotiating with buyers and speaking with state officials about the framework of a lease extension that will keep the team in New Orleans through 2024, with no escape clauses.
Sources with knowledge of the sales discussions indicated that the list of potential suitors has been whittled from a half-dozen or so, a number acknowledged by Stern on several occasions, and that all parties have entered into confidentiality agreements regarding sales discussions.
Sperling would offer no concrete information on individuals or groups that could still be actively negotiating. Former Hornets minority owner Gary Chouest, whose agreement in principle to buy the team from founding owner George Shinn twice fell through at the final hour, necessitating league intervention in December 2010, is said to be among the prospective buyers, while Saints owner Tom Benson and a group of West Coast investors fronted by former NBA coach and executive Mike Dunleavy have also been reportedly interested.