NEW YORK — Tom Benson brought stability to the Saints nearly three decades ago and now plans to do the same for the Hornets in small-market New Orleans.
The Saints’ owner agreed Friday to purchase the Hornets from the NBA.
“We expect this club to be one of the most outstanding clubs in the league, otherwise I don’t want to get involved,” Benson said. “This is just a good thing and I’m just glad to be a part of it.”
A person familiar with the deal says the purchase price is $338 million. The person spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because the financial terms have not been announced.
The NBA has been trying to sell the Hornets since buying the club from founder George Shinn in December 2010. While preparing the team for sale the league negotiated a new lease for the Hornets to remain in the state-owned New Orleans Arena through 2024.
The sale of the team to Benson has to be approved by the NBA’s Board of Governors, which is meeting in New York on Friday.
“The city is one of the country’s treasures and we really have found the perfect owner,” Commissioner David Stern said. “Our goal all along has been to get the Hornets bought by somebody whose commitment to New Orleans would be unrivaled.”
The framework of ownership negotiations were handled in a way that a new Hornets owner would have to accept the lease worked out between the NBA and Gov. Bobby Jindal. The lease agreement also called for $50 million in improvements to the basketball stadium, which sits right across the street from the Superdome.
Once the NBA approves the sale of the team to Benson, the next step is for the state Legislature to approve the arena lease deal because of the funding needed for stadium improvements. But legislative leaders already have publicly voiced support for the proposed lease deal, which would take effect in July.
The 84-year-old Benson, a New Orleans-native, has owned the Saints since 1985, when he stepped in to block efforts by other prospective investors to move the NFL franchise to Jacksonville, Fla. Now Benson has made another major investment to stabilize the NBA’s presence in the Big Easy on the same day that the Hornetswere hosting the Utah Jazz, the very team New Orleans lost to relocation in 1979.
Benson helped bring the Saints their first playoff appearance in 1987 and finally a Super Bowl title in 2010. His ownership of the Hornets means the two small-market franchises both will be locally owned and now can work as partners in their efforts to attract corporate sponsorships, and Hornets fans can at least hope that will translate to a better product on the hardwood.
At the very least, the move provided Benson with some refreshingly positive publicity on the heels of the Saints’ bounty scandal, which led the NFL to suspend head coach Sean Payton for the entire 2012 season — the same season that will see New Orleans host the Super Bowl.
Only a day before the Saints announced Benson’s purchase of the Hornets, the NFL club announced that assistant head coach Joe Vitt, who also oversees linebackers, would be elevated to interim coach for the coming football season, despite his own six-game suspension in connection with the bounty probe.
While the Saints have become a cherished institution that has become entrenched in the local culture since the club’s founding in 1967, the Hornets are relatively new to Louisiana’s pro sports landscape.
The Hornets moved to New Orleans from Charlotte in 2002, but have often been on shaky ground since, including when the club spent two full seasons in Oklahoma City after Hurricane Katrina devastated large parts of southeast Louisiana in August 2005.
In 2010, former owner George Shinn decided to pull out. He was unable to find a buyer who would commit to keeping the team in New Orleans, so the NBA took the unprecedented step of taking ownership of the team and has been working to find a new permanent local owner for a year-and-a-half.
As part of the effort to attract a new owner, team officials spent the past offseason conducting an unusual campaign to build the club’s season-ticket base to 10,000, which the league considers a benchmark for successful franchises. The campaign involved social mixers in the homes of prominent business people in the region.
The team also attracted more major corporate sponsors for the 2011-12 season than it had ever had since moving to the Big Easy.
It was not immediately clear how a change in ownership might the front office personnel who led marketing effort for the Hornets in the past year or the coaching staff, as there was no immediate word from Benson or his associates on that front.
Head coach Monty Williams and general manager Dell Demps each are in their second season, having joined forces to help the Hornets make the playoffs last season.
This season, the team decided to honor star guard Chris Paul’s request for a trade and went into rebuilding mode. Benson will take control of a club that will miss the playoffs, but which also will have at least one — probably two — picks in the NBA’s draft lottery. The Hornets also control the Minnesota Timberwolves first-round pick in 2012.
Also unclear is whether Benson might seek to rebrand the franchise to give it more of a Louisiana flavor. The Hornets were the team’s original name in Charlotte. Basketball fans in New Orleans still regularly complain on talk radio and in internet chat rooms about Utah’s refusal to give up the nickname Jazz, a reference to a genre of music born in the Big Easy and a cherished part of the city’s heritage and culture.
Still, if not Jazz, there are other names that might speak more to the local culture than the name Hornets, and perhaps enhance the growing perception that the NBA is at last taking root in Louisiana.