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Would You Support A Second NBA Team In Chicago?

The New Orleans Hornets, now owned by the NBA, are looking for a new owner, and likely a new city. Could it be Chicago?

The mess surrounding the New Orleans Hornets, who relocated there from Charlotte and wound up temporarily in Oklahoma City, is well chronicled in this piece by Adrian Wojnarowski at Yahoo! and also at the mothership, SBNation.com, in this commentary by Tom Ziller. The NBA has now purchased the Hornets and presumably, seeks a buyer, although if MLB's trouble finally selling the Montreal Expos is any indication, this could wind up being a two or three year process.

The reason you're reading about this here at SB Nation Chicago are comments made by Ian Thomsen at SI.com about where the Hornets might wind up. It's clear that New Orleans is not a suitable NBA market any more; the Jazz fled from there to the basketball hotbed (?) of Salt Lake City 30 years ago and it took until 2003 to put a team back there. The aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and the shrinking of the population and business base in New Orleans make it problematic for any pro sports team that isn't called "Saints" to continue to operate there. New Orleans is now the 53rd largest TV market in the USA -- by far the smallest in the league; the next-smallest is Oklahoma City at No. 45 and then San Antonio, No. 37. The Hornets can get out of their lease if they draw fewer than 14,213 fans over 13 home games from Dec. 1 to Jan. 17. The first two games of those 13 have averaged only 12,443. So they're probably goners. But where?

Thomsen makes the following suggestion in his piece, presuming the Hornets do get sold by the NBA:

... the new owner of the Hornets will place New Orleans in a pool among larger available markets, including Chicago, Anaheim, San Jose and Kansas City. There hasn't been a lot of talk elsewhere about Chicago, but it is the third biggest market in North America and it has only one NBA team. New York will have two franchises when the Nets move to Brooklyn in two years, and Los Angeles has two. In suburban Chicago near O'Hare Airport, the Allstate Arena could serve as a temporary NBA home until a new arena could be built, depending on the resources of the new owner.

Let's look at some of the other choices first. Anaheim? Los Angeles already has two NBA teams and one of them is barely there. The Lakers dominate that market. In the Bay Area, the Warriors make money, but have had little success on the court. Two teams in the Bay Area? Unlikely. The NBA washed out of Kansas City in the 1970s; the team played half its games in Omaha for a few years before finally moving to Sacramento. Other cities that used to have NBA teams -- St. Louis, Cincinnati, Buffalo -- or ABA teams -- Pittsburgh, Louisville, San Diego, in some cases both, seem unlikely relocation prospects, as does Seattle, which lost the Sonics to Oklahoma City. The same issue -- lack of public support for a new arena -- would probably kill a move there.

So what about Chicago? As Thomsen noted, the Allstate Arena is NBA-ready; it seats 18,500 for hockey and could easily seat 20,000 for NBA games, and has 48 suites. That's not an ideal NBA arena in the modern age, but as noted, it would be perfectly suitable on a temporary basis. And perhaps the perfect owner already has an Allstate Arena team -- Don Levin, owner of the AHL's Chicago Wolves. Levin was initially interested in buying the Cubs, but the price was off-putting. According to Thomsen's article, the Hornets' price would be $300 million, far less than the Cubs, and Don Levin has proven to be a fan-friendly owner, charging reasonable prices for tickets and engendering far more fan loyalty than you'd expect for a minor league hockey team.

The Bulls are on the cusp of becoming at least a conference championship contender, but their pricing structure cuts out a lot of people who might otherwise be inclined to go to games. You can't get into a lower level seat for less than $100 a game, and many "premium" games cost up to $160 on an individual game basis. If the Chicago Hornets -- let's say they kept the nickname -- charged somewhat less, they'd be able to get fan support without undercutting the Bulls, who have an established fan base and several star players. Levin has also cut deals to televise virtually all Wolves games, most on a Comcast-only cable channel, but also 18 games on My50, a local broadcast channel. The NBA would be attractive to My50, or possibly WCIU, or even some games on Comcast SportsNet, which carries the Bulls and Blackhawks.

There's no doubt in my mind that Chicago is a large enough market for two NBA teams, just as there's plenty of support for two major league baseball teams here. Whether it's Don Levin or some other local person or group with deep pockets (hello, Jim Anixter, another local guy who was once interested in buying the Cubs), they should go for it and bring some NBA competition to Chicago. It would be good for the city and good for the Bulls, too; any increased interest in basketball would be good for them.

Oh, and that Chicago Hornets nickname? In the late 1940's, an NFL competitor called the All-America Football Conference was formed with a team in Chicago, that was first called the Rockets, later the Hornets. (Three AAFC teams later joined the NFL: the San Francisco 49ers, Cleveland Browns and Baltimore Colts.) Sounds like a perfect way to revive the nickname. (Just one last thing -- ditch those awful pinstripe uniforms.)