It doesn’t take high-level accounting or financial analytics to see what the New Orleans Pelicans are up against.
It merely takes an understanding of the region’s professional basketball history and a glance around the Smoothie King Center on a typical game night this season. Large swaths of empty seats and television ratings that finished in the bottom third of the NBA last season are indicative of the team’s tepid fan support, despite a bounce-back in TV viewership this year and national headlines garnered after acquiring All-Star center DeMarcus Cousins.
But unlike past eras of New Orleans professional basketball, wavering support has been met by ownership with understanding, rather than scorn.
“You will never hear us say, ‘If we don’t get to 10,000 season tickets, the team is moving,’ ” Pelicans team president Dennis Lauscha said. “You’ll never hear that from us.”
So instead of searching for a way to move the team to a more lucrative market, as the Jazz did in 1979 and the Hornets repeatedly threatened to do during their first decade in the city, Lauscha and several team executives said it’s the franchise’s responsibility to make the NBA work in New Orleans — and not vice versa.
The Pelicans are in the midst of an arena lease agreement with the state until 2024 and have shown no desire to break the contract.
It’s a unique approach for a skeptical market but one Lauscha said owner Tom Benson (who also owns the NFL’s Saints) directs from the top of Louisiana’s professional sports pyramid. So empty seats and low visibility aren’t seen as reasons to move the team — instead they're a motivation to move people.
And despite losing seasons in four of the past five years, the Pelicans said they sold more than 11,000 season-ticket accounts for the 2016-17 season. And merchandise sales are continually improving; the Pelicans had the NBA's top-selling team store in the first quarter of 2017.
There’s reason to believe fan support can grow quickly. Before the 2015-16 season, the Pelicans broke franchise season-ticket sales records, propelled by a playoff appearance the previous season and fueled by Anthony Davis’ rise as the NBA’s brightest young star.
But smash-cut to today, and the Pelicans are not only staring up from the bottom quarter of the NBA standings but also trying to gain a grip on the New Orleans public, which has wandered off amid disappointing results.
“It’s hard to watch sometimes,” Pelicans fan Jay Landry said Wednesday. “I know everything was supposed to be better with (DeMarcus Cousins) here, but it’s hard to come here and watch the team lose all of the time.”
And the franchise, which has won just one playoff series since arriving in New Orleans 15 years ago, is keenly aware that support starts on the scoreboard.
“We’re not winning,” Lauscha said in early February. “We’re not oblivious to what’s happening. Our expectation has always been to be in the playoffs and win championships. That’s the expectation. We aren’t meeting that expectation, and we understand our fans aren’t happy. Hell, we aren’t happy.
“We have 125 people who work on the staff of the New Orleans Pelicans, and they aren’t happy. They are real people who go out in the world and hear what people say. They know what’s going on. We aren’t happy and accepting of this. We are trying to improve as best we can.”
Still, Lauscha said the team is distributing more than 16,000 tickets per game, which is nearly 95 percent of the Smoothie King Center’s official capacity. Vice president of ticket sales Mike Stanfield said the team is among the NBA leaders in group sales as well.
But those no-shows, occasionally creating completely empty sections, are impossible to ignore.
“What we have to ask is, ‘Why aren’t people showing up?’ ” Lauscha said. “I’m not naïve to think it’s because the on-court performance isn’t what it needs to be. We are not blind to that. We talk about how we can improve that.”
Yet Pelicans executives insist they’re doing everything else they can to entice people into the arena and into the season-ticket base. The team invested in the customer-service side, sponsoring a Disney training course for arena workers and employing a six-person staff of data analysts to track customer satisfaction (taken from a variety of surveys and purchasing trends) while beefing up the marketing budget with added signage around the city and technological partnerships to ease purchasing. The Pelicans were honored as the NBA’s “best customer service” team in 2015-16 by the league, thanks to many of these improvements.
Yet a perception lingers that the Pelicans are merely a stepbrother to the Saints, whom Benson has owned since 1985 and are an indisputable cultural tentpole in New Orleans.
“It’s a perception they just can’t escape,” said Gus Kattengell, who hosts "The Sports Hangover" radio show on 100.3-FM. “We have so many callers who always say if (ownership) cared half as much about the Pelicans as the football team, then imagine what the basketball team would look like. Perception becomes reality sometimes, and a whole lot of fans just think that it’s a fact the Pelicans are second in line over there.”
The most cited example, Kattengell said, is the uncertain role of Mickey Loomis, who serves as head of basketball operations for the Pelicans and executive vice president/general manger of the Saints. Neither Lauscha nor Pelicans general manager Dell Demps wanted to speak for Loomis when asked precisely what Loomis’ role is on the basketball side, and Lauscha directed several questions about the oversight of the on-court product to Loomis.
“Overall, Dell is running the day-to-day operations of the team, and he is the general manager,” Lauscha said. “I know Mickey participates in helping Dell and working with Dell. But that’s a discussion point you’ll have to have with them.”
Loomis was not made available to The Advocate for this story.
“Honestly, I don't have a lot to do with (the Pelicans),” he told a group of reporters Jan. 24 at the Senior Bowl. "I think it's probably overblown the amount of actual time and work that I have to do with the Pelicans. It's something Mr. Benson has asked me to do, but, again, I think it's overblown the amount of actual work that I do (for the Pelicans).”
The premise of the Pelicans standing second in line to the Saints is one franchise executives harshly rebuke, adamantly stating there is no back seat for basketball, despite Loomis’ vague position.
“Mickey has an extremely important role in our building, being that we own an NBA and NFL team; it is very unique,” Pelicans senior vice president of communications Greg Bensel said. “He is our primary football executive. All decisions made on the football side day to day run through him. He leaves the day-to-day operations of the basketball team to Dell; however, Mickey ensures that both teams have all the resources they need to be successful. He is the conduit to Mr. Benson to make that happen on both teams, someone that Mr. Benson trusts implicitly to make those decisions.”
Lauscha also pointed to myriad basketball investments for personnel, community involvement and infrastructure, including a new practice facility as well as arena renovations. He said he spends a significant percentage of his day trying to “put a basketball in every child’s hands” in the area.
“To suggest in any way, shape or form we are neglecting the basketball team is ludicrous,” Lauscha said. “I think if you go and look about where the state of this basketball team is, from a business perspective, respectful of all the presidents who have come before me, we are in a much better place than we have ever been.”
Lauscha illustrated his commitment by mentioning his role on the NBA’s team advisory council and helping craft the league’s collective bargaining agreement with the NBA Players Association.
“We are fully engaged,” he said. “In some ways, we’re more engaged in the NBA than we are in the NFL, to be honest with you.”
Yet he admitted the transition into the basketball market has been a more difficult climb than he expected in 2012. He learned the seemingly endless fountain of support for the Saints — who have sold out the Mercedes-Benz Superdome since 2006 and typically lead the NFL in local television ratings — isn’t going to necessarily follow the Pelicans just because they share a city and an owner.
And it provided some early growing pains.
“When Mr. Benson bought the team, everyone thought we would be able to convert everybody who is a Saints customer into being a Pelicans customer, and we thought that, too,” Lauscha said. “Only 24 percent of our Pelicans season-ticket holders are Saints season-ticket holders. They’re totally different consumers. They’re different products.”
The majority of Pelicans ticket buyers live in Orleans Parish or Jefferson Parish, Lauscha said; an estimated 30 percent of Saints season-ticket holders come from beyond the metro area entirely.
And a glance at the secondary ticket market on a Pelicans gameday reveals a gap in value. On major markets like StubHub, Pelicans tickets are routinely available for less than half of the season-ticket holder price, especially for non-marquee midweek games like Tuesday's contest against the Portland Trail Blazers.
“I can’t sell my tickets for anywhere close to what I paid for them,” Metairie resident Barrett Johnston said. “Anyone can just go on the Internet and buy the tickets for nothing.”
The Pelicans are aware of the issue and said through data metrics they’re able to sort out the brokers, mostly using ZIP codes, and decline many of them from purchasing.
Lauscha estimated some teams sell as many as 6,000 tickets to brokers, and senior vice president of marketing Ben Hales said overall sales could be substantially better if they were more widely opened to brokers, but he believes that would devalue the appeal of season tickets. A source familiar with the secondary market confirmed those claims to The Advocate, saying the team has limited its broker sales to slightly more than 2,000 seats, and that is broken up among four major partners.
That’s a change from several years ago, when the Hornets would sell blocks of tickets to dozens of brokers who scrambled to get them on the market at a basement price, devaluing tickets and increasing the likelihood of no-shows, the source added.
“We try to make sure there aren’t a bunch of brokers out there taking all of our tickets,” Hales said. “Look, some brokers don’t care about selling some games for $20, because they’re just waiting for (a game against) Cleveland to cash in. We don’t want that. We want to protect season-ticket holders. The easy answer for us would be, ‘Brokers want to buy tickets? Great. That’s tickets sold.’ But that’s not what we want. We have to sell it authentically. This selling discipline is yet another example of our long-term investment.”
The Pelicans are hoping the allure of a dedicated season-ticket representative, a free beer garden before games and a 15 percent discount at concession stands is enough to keep season-ticket holders from bolting to the secondary market when demand is lean.
“Is it a dollar-for-dollar equivalent? Probably not right now,” Lauscha said. “And we’re not going to try to say it’s dollar for dollar. But it should be cheaper for you at the game as a season-ticket holder in other areas. And, to be honest with you, the flip side is going to happen the other way when we are winning championships. People will be selling their tickets for grossly higher amounts than what they paid.”
Ultimately, that’s the rub: Despite all of the investments, the team’s success will dictate how successful the franchise performs in the market.
The team having a 25-40 record, the sixth-worst in the NBA entering Saturday, has made the climb into the community’s radar a steep one uphill. But regardless of how rough the road has been, the Pelicans continue to express faith in the market, rather than threatening to abandon it.
“Obviously, after the playoff series, there were a lot of high hopes and expectations,” Demps said in early February. “I think the most disappointing thing was the injuries from the 2015-16 season. I never thought we got a real good indication of just how good that team could be.
“But, moving forward, we opted to go in a different direction. I think this season, obviously we are not happy where we are right now, but I think we see a lot of encouragement for us moving forward.”