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tiggerpolice 03-03-2008 12:44 AM

Hornets crowds could meet attendance goals
by John Reid, The Times-Picayune
Saturday March 01, 2008, 9:41 PM
After each shot Hornets star Chris Paul made Friday night, the more than 17,000 fans at the New Orleans Arena erupted. In unison, the fans chanted "defense" whenever the Utah Jazz worked to make a shot. And with the game in hand, a chorus of "MVP, MVP" once again rained down on Paul, the team's transcendent point guard.

It was a festive, exciting atmosphere and another sign that New Orleans finally was warming up to its professional basketball franchise.

The Hornets have seen a significant surge in attendance since the city hosted a successful All-Star Game Weekend last month. The team, battling for the lead in the ultra-competitive Western Conference, achieved its fourth sellout in six games when 17,445 people came out Friday night to see the Hornets defeat the Utah Jazz 110-98.

It is the first time the Hornets have achieved back-to-back sellouts in New Orleans during a 41-game home schedule since the 2002-03 season. And it made it that much more likely that the team will be in the Crescent City to stay.

In January, when the franchise signed an amended lease agreement with the state that calls for the team to average 14,735 fans from Dec. 1 until the end of the 2008-09 season before an opt-out clause kicks in, team and state officials directed the challenge toward the fans to support the franchise.

After a tepid start, fans have responded. The Hornets have averaged 16,258 people the past six games, pulling up the average to 13,743 in the 23 games since Dec. 1 -- when the count began. The team needs to fill an average of 15,174 seats at the remaining games this season and next to prevent the opt-out clause from kicking in.

With 11 home regular-season games remaining this season, the Hornets already are approaching sellouts for a March 14 game against the Los Angeles Lakers and March 22 game against the Eastern Conference leaders, the Boston Celtics.

"It is starting to feel like a great basketball city," center Tyson Chandler said. "It feels really good to see the energy and the crowds. It has definitely changed. Before we would get in here and not feel much energy. We would say that we had to create our own energy, but now they are here juiced up and they are getting behind us."

Although Hornets owner George Shinn said he never doubted success for his franchise in New Orleans, he is surprised about the recent surge in ticket sales.

"I've got to be pleased, but I really honestly didn't feel it would come this quick," Shinn said. "I thought it would really struggle through this year, and then next year would be the key time. But the way it's picked up, I couldn't be happier. It just shows the passion of the fans here."

Hornets crowds could meet attendance goals - New Orleans News -

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