Ascendancy is a trajectory, not an identity. The New Orleans Pelicans branding team has learned that the hard way this season. If you sell fans solely on winning, and then proceed to not win, well ... you aren't left with much. Consequently, fans have started to tune out the Pelicans organization at an alarming rate.
New Orleans is the 51st largest television market in the United States, sitting just below Memphis. The Pelicans play in the smallest television market in the league and have the lowest NBA team valuation at just 650 million dollars. Hence, it is reasonable to speculate about the long term viability of the NBA in New Orleans.
In a recent report by the Sports Business Journal, it was found that the Pelicans rank last in their market for local TV ratings, averaging a stupendously depressing 7,000 local viewers per a game.
In relation to the Pelicans already low local viewership rate, it was found that the Pelicans had the second most viewers tune out on this season. The Pelicans are averaging about 30% less local viewers than the year previous.
BREAKING: New Orleans Pelicans fans suffer season ending injury. They will be done for the remainder of the season.— Joseph Billiot (@jdbillio) March 9, 2016
The Equation - Identify the Factors
Is building a fanbase around the Pelicans as simple as just winning more games?
There is almost certainly a correlation between winning and popularity. The Golden State Warriors viewership size has increased by 120% this season. To deny that winning is an important factor in the equation of a teams popularity is stupid. But, is it the only factor?
I doubt it. Even last season, during one of the most exciting playoff runs in franchise history, the New Orleans Pelicans ranked dead last in the total number of local viewers.
The length of time a franchise exists in a market seems to have a greater significance than simply winning. Two similar markets, Utah (25th in market size) and San Antonio (27th in market size), rank 9th and 12th in average NBA attendance. Comparatively, Memphis and New Orleans, two of the younger teams in their NBA market, rank 23rd and 24th respectively in average NBA game attendance. Memphis' rank is particularly enlightening because they have been a winning franchise over the past five years.
The city's other professional franchise, the New Orleans Saints, also supports the idea that length of time the franchise exists in an market is as important as winning. Last year, despite having a largely disappointing season, the New Orleans Saints ranked second in NFL local market viewership and 9th in average NFL game attendance.
Is there another factor to account for?
The "Grit N' Grind," also known as the Memphis Grizzlies, stay mostly in the black, while operating in the second smallest NBA market. Memphis may have stumbled upon one more important factor that has been underappreciated for years, team identity. In 2013 the Memphis Grizzlies ranked 5th in local viewership rate.
Whether it was Showtime, the Bad Boys, Splash Brothers, or Grit N' Grind, team identity has always been an important, yet underappreciated, aspect of building an popular NBA franchise. In the New Orleans Pelicans' attempt to build their own identity, they mistook trajectory for culture.
Before the season started, fans were sold on the idea that the Pelicans were a young team with aspirations to win their first playoff series. As the season is winding down, however, that facade has vanished. The Pelicans are the 13th oldest NBA team, and are firmly out of the playoffs. So where do they go from here?
If popularity equals winning, factored by time, factored by identity -- the last factor may be the easiest for an NBA franchise to control: Just because it is the easiest to control, however, doesn't mean it is the easiest to establish. To create an identity for an NBA team involves a holistic approach in building the entire franchise around the market's culture.
For the most part, the Pelicans franchise has done a terrific job of importing the city's culture upon the team. The rebrand has made the team a part of the city, the state, and indeed the entire Gulf Coast. Few professional franchises do as many events both in quality and quantity as the New Orleans Pelicans.
So what is it that makes New Orleans, of all cities, so unique? To me, it has always been that which we call our street cars: Desire. The desire to be better, desire to rebuild, desire to stay. That desire that sometimes causes anyone who has ever lived in the city to have a little too much fun -- and the desire to do it again.
That special New Orleans' dish of desire, however, has not translated into the personnel moves of Dell Demps. It started off poorly with his very first, somewhat forced, move: resigning Eric Gordon.
The people of New Orleans want your heart. Nothing more, nothing less. So when Eric Gordon made those fateful statements about his heart being in Phoenix, he sealed his fate amongst the local fan base. Just ask Beyonce, if you don't have the desire to actually be in the city, New Orleanians will take it very personally, no matter how talented you are.
The desire to both win games and remain apart of the city isn't an issue that falls squarely on one player on the Pelicans roster. Indeed, rumors have persisted about the desire of several of the Pelicans players.
Going forward, Dell Demps (or whoever is making the personnel decisions next year) should factor in a player's desire to win as much as his talent. New Orleans basketball fans have always loved those players who had some dog in them.
Beyond that, when you have an athletic savant like Anthony Davis, the team may want to show off his talent as much as possible. To do that the Pelicans need to add better perimeter passers and better athletes to the Pelicans roster. How fun would it be to ship out guys like Eric Gordon and Ryan Anderson and replace them with gritty guys like Dwight Powell and Matthew Dellavedova?
Only when the Pelicans establish an identity that is both conducive to winning and truly marketable to the city of New Orleans will this franchise be successful.
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