NEW ORLEANS -- The NBA confirmed Monday that its 2008 All-Star Game will be played in this beleaguered but rebuilding city, an announcement local officials seized upon as a sign the Hornets also will be playing here full-time in the 2007-08 season.
"The NBA would not want to award an All-Star Game to a city [that was losing its team], so it certainly bodes well for us in that respect," said Doug Thornton, regional vice president of SMG, the company that manages the state-owned New Orleans Arena and the Louisiana Superdome.
Thornton, along with convention bureau officials, helped negotiate the deal with the NBA to bring the game here. He said the city had to prove it could secure massive blocks of hotel rooms as well as convention space for All-Star weekend events.
The game is one of the biggest national events to be booked in New Orleans since Hurricane Katrina laid waste to large swaths of the metro area. Flooding that was catastrophic in many neighborhoods caused only minor damage to the New Orleans arena, which has been repaired and hosted three well-attended Hornets games last March.
"The award of NBA All-Star 2008 is our vote of confidence in the progress that is being made in the reopening and rebuilding of New Orleans' tourism infrastructure," commissioner David Stern said in a statement. "New Orleans will become the basketball capital of the world in February 2008, and demonstrate to a global audience that New Orleans is very much open for business."
The game will be played at New Orleans Arena on Feb. 17, 2008. There will also be a week of events leading up to the game, including the skills competitions the night before the game.
Jay Cicero, president of the Greater New Orleans Sports Foundation, predicted All-Star events would generate between $70 million and $100 million in spending in the city, with corporate-sponsored parties filling up the city's night clubs throughout the weekend.
The New Orleans Hornets played most their home games in Oklahoma City this season because of the devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina.
The Hornets are scheduled to play 35 games in Oklahoma City next season and six in New Orleans. Their lease, unless the Hornets or the NBA maneuver to break it, calls for the Hornets to return full-time for the 2007-08 season. Hornets owner George Shinn has said he intends to return but that he does not believe it would be wise to come back if selling tickets, suites and corporate sponsorships proves problematic in the city's post-Katrina economy.
Shinn is looking for minority investors in the Hornets and has meet with prospects in both New Orleans and Oklahoma City. Ticket sales in Oklahoma are on pace to exceed last season, when about half the games where were sellouts and the rest were near capacity.
"NBA All-Star 2008 will be a wonderful opportunity to showcase not only the greatest athletes in the world, but one of the greatest cities in the world in New Orleans," Shinn said. "I cant think of a better way to show people that our city is back and revitalized than by hosting the NBA's signature event.
"We plan to be back in New Orleans for the 2007-08 season and will be working closely with government officials, business leaders and the NBA to ensure that our return is successful for everyone involved," Shinn added.
With insurance settlements and federal aid beginning to pour in, parts of the New Orleans area resemble a boomtown, with bustling construction activity and heavy traffic. But in many poor neighborhoods and more heavily damaged communities to the southeast, gutted buildings, empty neighborhoods and countless piles of debris paint a vivid picture of the widespread devastation Katrina caused more than eight months ago.
There is no apparent loophole that would allow the Hornets out of their lease in New Orleans, which runs through 2012, said Tim Coulon, chairman of the Louisiana Stadium and Exposition District Commission, that state agency that oversees the Superdome and arena.
The commission wanted the Hornets to play a second season in Oklahoma city as part of a strategy to save both the NFL's Saints and the Hornets by phasing them back into a rebuilding market one season apart.
The Saints, now entering their fourth decade in New Orleans, already have broken an all-time season ticket-sales record (about 55,000) with the 2006 regular season still more than three months away.
Coulon said the state's intention is to work closely with the Hornets to help them become successful in New Orleans and to heavily market pro sports as an entertainment option both for local business executives as well as tourists and convention visitors.
"We're looking for the team to live up to the terms of their lease, which remains that they return in 2007," Coulon said. "There may be a scenario where they try to break it, and that's why we have courts."