As Mayor Pat McCrory and Charlotte Bobcats owner Robert Johnson cut the ribbon on the new $265 million NBA arena here last month, the looming question was obvious: Will anybody come?
It is a question many professional basketball franchises below the Mason-Dixon must ponder with a new season under way this week. Six of the 30 NBA teams have southern accents: the Bobcats, Atlanta Hawks, Memphis Grizzlies, Orlando Magic, New Orleans Hornets, and Miami Heat. But last season, four of them - Orlando, Charlotte, Atlanta, and New Orleans - generated the league's four lowest attendance totals.
"When you look at those numbers, you have to say that part of the country is lagging," says Marc Ganis, president of Sportscorp, a consulting firm based in Chicago. "My guess is, it's cyclical. I think they can turn it around."
Only Miami, bolstered by Shaquille O'Neal and rising star Dwyane Wade, flourished last season, finishing fourth in attendance while reaching the conference finals. Memphis ranked in the middle tier at the box office and made the playoffs for a second straight year. Miami is projected as a championship contender again while Memphis should remain competitive.
By comparison, the aforementioned Dixie dregs must make substantial net gains just to reach mediocrity. The Magic, Hawks, Hornets, and Bobcats all failed to reach the playoffs last season, quite a feat in a league where more than half the clubs qualify for postseason play.
Frustrated fans turn away as problems mount, from longstanding arena battles (Orlando) to perennial losses (Atlanta won an NBA-low 13 games in 2004-05) to tepid basketball interest (New Orleans).
Even in hoops-happy North Carolina, renowned for college basketball heroes along Tobacco Road, fans stay away in droves. Some of the apathy can be attributed to Charlotte's first NBA franchise, the Hornets, which enjoyed a 10-year, 364-game sellout streak before battles over a publicly funded arena, soured supporters and the club fled to New Orleans.
Enter the Bobcats, beneficiaries of a publicly funded arena but victims of a Hornets backlash. Team executives decline disclosing season-ticket figures, but industry experts say Charlotte will be one of the few teams to suffer a sales decline after moving into a new home, evidence of flagging fan interest.
Mr. Johnson, a cable-TV billionaire who paid $300 million for the expansion Bobcats two years ago, anticipates a rebound - and soon. "The citizens of Charlotte and the leadership of Charlotte wanted the NBA back," he says. "The NBA wanted to be back. And that resulted in my coming here, so we're back." His prognosis? "I'm absolutely confident," he says. "If people don't like [attending games], we'll give them their money back."
Beyond on-court performance, analysts say Sunbelt clubs must overcome attractive year-round climates capable of distracting potential customers. Franchises also face steep competition from ingrained college programs.
Even before hurricane Katrina damaged the Hornets' arena in New Orleans and forced the franchise into temporary digs in Oklahoma City, attracting fans was no slam dunk.
"For starters, the Southeast is football country," says team spokesman Michael Thompson. "It's where college football is a religion of its own."
The NBA's answer? True religion. Soon after the Grizzlies relocated from Vancouver, team representatives sought input from local clergy. The idea was to assuage concerns over the NBA's hip-hop culture while demonstrating the club's civic commitment.
The Grizzlies even took suggestions from congregations on game times, hoping to minimize conflicts with worship services and Bible study classes. Says Grizzlies executive Andy Dolich: "One thing that strikes me about this part of the country is how interwoven faith is in everything."
For the Hawks, a team owned by an investment group called Atlanta Spirit, proselytizing to the sweet sound of squeaking sneakers on the hardwood will make the home team beloved. The current ownership group took over last year and remains committed to a youth movement on the floor as well as an aggressive family-entertainment emphasis off it.
"We want to wow our fans with a fabulous experience," says Hawks CEO Bernie Mullin. "If we do that, we can turn them into evangelists who will spread the word about how entertaining our brand of basketball is. Right now, we're a work in progress."
Amen to that.