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From Bandwagon to Hearse 

Why the Bobcats aren't selling tickets

Get ready for a real shocker: the Bobcats are having trouble selling season tickets in the new downtown arena! Last week the daily paper, citing steep ticket price increases, reported that the Bobcats have sold only 7,000 season tickets, a drop of 2,000 from last year (the team's home schedule starts Nov. 5).

To put it mildly, this news isn't exactly a surprise. I'm not downplaying the Observer story; they did a good job of firming up what many people have already noticed -- that finding people in Charlotte who are truly fired up about the Bobcats is like looking for a dry spot in New Orleans.

Last year, despite having the NBA's top rookie, Emeka Okafur, the Bobcats had the third-lowest attendance in the league. This was a brand new NBA team located in a state with a history of basketball-worship, and yet during most games the Coliseum was only about half filled.

Anybody remember the Charlotte Hornets' first season? On most nights, the team couldn't hold its own against even mediocre clubs, but the Coliseum was packed night after night with screaming fans, their fervor and decibel level giving the games the feel of a revival meeting.

What happened in the meantime to turn the Bobcats into the equivalent of an unwanted guest? It's certainly not just high ticket prices; I don't even think it's the Bobcats per se. Disillusionment and resentments have been growing in Charlotte -- and interest has been waning -- for years. The confluence of the three are the Bobcats' own perfect storm.

First, Shinn happened. George Shinn, the Hornets' owner, so popular at first, soon established a disturbing pattern: build a decent team and then sell off its best players to boost the bottom line, over and over again. Fans also didn't like it that Shinn habitually threatened to move the team unless the city gave in to this or that demand. He was already the most hated man in Charlotte when he was busted for sexual assault. Broadcast live on Court TV, Shinn's trial brought out revelations about his private life that pretty well ruined what little reputation he had left (even though he was acquitted of the charge against him). Finally, the team's move to New Orleans had all the ingredients of a really nasty divorce: accusations, threats, mind games, you name it. Charlotte was like someone whose first love turns out to be an unfaithful, manipulative creep, and by the time the Hornets hit the road, the city was feeling badly burned.

Bob Johnson isn't George Shinn and, logically, it wouldn't be fair for him to have to pay a price for his predecessor's sleaziness. But life is not often logical and even less often fair. No one is saying Johnson reminds him or her of Shinn, but the memory of the lemon-haired gnome persists and makes the whole idea of the NBA stick in a lot of people's craws.

Then came the arena deal. City leaders absolutely had to have an arena downtown for a new NBA team and nothing was going to stop them. Not public opposition; not studies showing that sports teams aren't effective economic engines; not presentations of alternate ways to grow businesses downtown. Nothing. So they held a referendum and after an extremely divisive campaign, voters threw the arena back in City Council's face.

As you can see if you've been downtown, the city built the arena anyway. The sheer pigheadedness and arrogance of that move were breathtaking, and alienated voters from the city establishment in greater number than the bigwigs seem to realize even now.

But let's say you're fair and logical and don't blame Johnson for Shinn's shenanigans. And you've decided to forgive and forget the fact that city government used your referendum ballot as toilet paper. You're still left with the NBA.

As someone who used to love pro hoops, it pains me to admit it, but these days, other than maybe the last two rounds of the playoffs, the NBA just plain sucks. I'm not talking about paying 40 bucks for a nosebleed seat, although that's a serious problem too. It's the game itself. The rise of playground-style ball, with its glorification of one-on-one heroics, three-pointers and slam dunks, has created a less artful, less strategy-driven and less interesting sport. You can forget ball control fundamentals, and if you see NBA teammates working to free a man up to make a midrange jumper, you feel like you're in a time warp. And don't get me started on the absurd amounts of money these guys make, the rising number of high school students being drafted, or the brawls and the legal problems.

The NBA "product" has been in decline for years, both in terms of skill and popularity, but city leaders nonetheless jumped on what they, in their clueless arrogance, saw as a bandwagon. That bandwagon has become a hearse, and yet prices are keep going up. This defies the simple law of supply and demand. Which is a law the city should have thought of before buying the Bobcats a shiny new arena. And it's something Johnson should have thought out more carefully before setting up shop here.

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  • On Saturday, Oct. 21, hundreds gathered at Camp North End on Statesville Avenue for Charlotte's first black alternative music festival. We captured some of the bands in action on stage, but mostly we surveyed the grounds as fans, families, vendors and more lounged around the sprawling, colorful Camp North End site. It was a great day of music, food, fun, and sweet, autumn sunshine. (Photos by Mark Kemp)
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