The Expos are the only previous case of a major American sports league purchasing one of its teams*, so naturally many NBA analysts are comparing the NBA's purchase of the Hornets to the MLB's purchase of the Expos. And although there are some similarities between the Hornets' situation and the plight of the Expos circa 2000, the Hornets' period of NBA ownership will likely not become the abject disaster that the Expos' period of MLB ownership was. At worst, it will become a different kind of abject disaster.
For as Tolstoy might have said, each successful franchise is alike, but each failure is wretched in its own special way.
1) The Hornets will not be an orphaned, afterthought franchise.
The Expos were actually supposed to be contracted. After months of speculation, Major League Baseball owners met in Chicago on November 6, 2001, in which they voted 28-2 to contract the Expos and the Minnesota Twins. As this happened, John Henry's group, which previously owned the Marlins, bought the Boston Red Sox. To make the deal possible, John Henry sold the Marlins to Jeffrey Loria, the owner of the Expos, who in turn sold the Expos to Major League Baseball, in anticipation of contraction. However, the owners of the Metrodome in Minnesota won an injunction against Major League Baseball, requiring the Twins to play in the Metrodome in 2002. Baseball couldn't contract only one team, since that would have created an odd number of MLB teams and leave one idle on every day, making a 162-game schedule impossible in a 6-month time window. As a result, the MLB was stuck with the Expos and had to try to find a way to get a buyer.
The Hornets, however, are a viable, competitive, and valuable franchise. Their only problem is that George Shinn wanted out of the organization quickly, and that wasn't able to be done quickly enough for his desire and still keep the franchise in New Orleans. It's not a team, like the Expos, that were deemed to be of negative value to the league.
2) The Hornets organization will ensure that the team remans competitive
When Jeffrey Loria bought the Florida Marlins, he took more than his talents to South Beach – he took the Expos' front office, on-field staff, and even the manager. When the Expos tried to rebuild, they had no personnel, no scouting reports, and no office equipment. Loria even took all of the team's computers to Miami. Major League Baseball then installed an entirely new front office, one that was largely incompetent. The man running the show was Omar Minaya, soon to become yet another failed Mets GM. Minaya was just as incompetent in Montreal as he was later in New York, but nobody noticed because he was tanking the Expos, who nobody cared about. He made one of the most hilariously lopsided trades in recent MLB history, trading future all-stars Grady Sizemore, Brandon Phillips, and Cliff Lee for the fat and incompetent Bartolo Colón.
In 2003, the Montreal Expos were in the middle of a wild-card race when September 1 rolled around, usually the date that teams bring up 10 extra reserves to swell rosters to 35 players and give some much-needed rest to the core roster players after a grueling 5-month season. Though doing so would only cost the MLB $50,000, the League decreed that the Expos couldn't spend the money to bring the players up, effectively crushing the wild-card hopes of the Expos.
The Hornets have, at long last, a solid front office. GM Dell Demps has made solid transactions so far, Monty Williams has proved to be a promising young head coach, and President Hugh Weber somehow convinced both of these guys to come to a team without an owner, so he's clearly a great salesman. Their personnel, scouting reports, and computers are all secure in New Orleans.
In addition, there's no NBA analogue to the refusal of the MLB to bring up the reserves. Though the Hornets will likely head into free agency without an increase in their budget, we weren't anticipating that the Hornets would pay the luxury tax any time soon. As a result, it's likely that the Hornets, due to their strong organization and their already low payroll, will continue to remain a competitive NBA team while the Expos were relegated to punchlines.
3) Basketball is viable in New Orleans.
The Expos had nobody showing up to their games. They ranked dead last in attendance for four years before the purchase, and they were dead last in the three years after the purchase in which the Expos stayed in Montreal. Many years, they had half the attendance of the team with the second-lowest attendance. Baseball was not viable in Montreal.
In contrast, the Hornets are in the lower tier of NBA attendance, but are nowhere near the Expos' level of futility. For the last three years, the Kings, Nets, and 76ers all had lower attendance every single year, and nobody says that basketball isn't viable in Sacramento, New Jersey, or Philadelphia. The Hornets haven't finished in the bottom three in attendance over the past four years. While the Hornets aren't going to be a major-market team in New Orleans, they have the fan base to make them successful over the long haul.
In addition, the NBA supports basketball in New Orleans, and has shown a lot of confidence in the city. David Stern says that the League is stepping in to keep basketball in New Orleans as part of the League's commitment to the city post-Katrina. The MLB clearly wanted baseball out of Montreal, and Bud Selig always said that he wanted the Expos to be relocated (and even made the Expos play half of their home games in Puerto Rico in 2003).
4) Basketball is rising, baseball was falling
The Expos were a desperate team in a desperate sport. The juice that the McGwire-Sosa home-run-athon provided MLB had waned by 2001, and league-wide attendance was continuing to fall. Interest in the sport was waning, and baseball was having to confront the reality that it might have expanded too quickly. Many wondered if the talent in the league had been spread too thin.
The NBA is a league still on the rise. Attendance, revenues, and interest are all on the uptick, even in a terrible economy. Fundamentally, the league is sound, and there's more than enough talent to go around. As a result, the Hornets are a much more valuable franchise than the Expos were if only because they compete in a growing and vibrant League.
*The Phoenix Coyotes do not apply because the NHL is clearly not a major American sports league.