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Start of Zion Williamson era creating hardships too quickly for some New Orleans Pelicans season ticket holders

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Zion and the team’s rise to relevance has come at a great cost.

Portland Trail Blazers v New Orleans Pelicans Photo by Layne Murdoch Jr./NBAE via Getty Images

From the genesis of basketball in 2002 to now, the New Orleans Pelicans pursuit of relevance has continually come up short. This checkered history introduced just seven playoff appearances in 17 seasons, two superstars who sought departure after just six seasons each, and an overall attitude that hunched over in the presence of its next door neighbor.

The Pelicans have never been the chief presence in New Orleans. Forget the Saints. The Pelicans play second and third fiddle to a variety of collegiate sports in the region. And yet, this fanbase has been a resilient group.

Perennial losing hasn’t evaporated interest despite failures in brand marketing, in-game entertainment and local coverage — things that are all being corrected under a new administration capable of adapting.

Per Nola.com, New Orleans was ESPN’s second-highest-rated local market during 2018 playoff broadcasts (19 games), their last season of true, competitive relevance.

That singular success could not be replicated in 2018-19 due to a rash of injuries, the departures of Rajon Rondo and DeMarcus Cousins, and of course the infamous Anthony Davis trade request. Still, amidst the losing and the drama, the Pelicans’ faithful continued to attend games with 650,000 tickets being sold last season (ESPN).

While two-thirds of a million tickets seems hefty in a vacuum, it put the local market just 25th in the NBA. The Pelicans and the city failed to foster a product worthy of breaking out of the bottom-ten teams in the NBA.

Enter Zion Williamson.

The Pelicans were gifted a beacon of light, a surge in interest both locally and internationally. Zion is more than a basketball player. Zion is a celebrity and an exciting brand.

The Pelicans now boast a superstar who is fast becoming the most in-demand name in the NBA. Already signing exclusively with Gatorade, Jordan, Panini, Beats by Dre, Moutain Dew, NBA 2K and Mercedes-Benz, Zion has already cracked the top-three in the NBA in endorsement salary (LeBron James, Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant).

With such escalating interest, one would expect ticket sales to shoot through the roof! Instead, the Pelicans’ fortunes have yet to turn around substantially.

After a 13-game losing streak and another rash of injuries, this group has a long way to climb to reach .500. As result, the Pelicans place just 22nd (ESPN) in 2019-20 with just over 450,000 tickets sold. On the road? The Pelicans are seventh.

And yet, the anticipation of Zion’s potential effect in New Orleans is still leading to sweeping changes to Pelicans’ season ticket holders, creating an adverse reaction. In some instances, benefits are being stripped. In others, escalating prices are forcing holders out of their seats.

Granted, ticket price hikes were inevitable and subscribers I spoke to understood a modest and incremental increase over a period of years.

The Pelicans ticket prices sunk to near the bottom of the league due in part to a history of longstanding losing. Piqued interest and success will bring inescapable increases in prices, but in some instances, the dramatic nature of those escalations have understandably upset a large portion of the fanbase.

John-Robert Phillips, Section 310

“My plan wasn’t to be a Pelicans fan, just watch them lose to some real good players. But about 10 games in we were hooked. Now at the school I go to I am known for being the Pelicans fan. I always have a hat or shirt or backpack on repping them and even give out my tickets when we can’t go to the games.”

“Our tickets last year for the early-bird price was $375 dollars. The same seats now are $611 dollars at the early-bird price, which would make sense to me if my section was anywhere close to being full (it is not), we were actually winning (which we are not), or if I couldn’t get the tickets cheaper other places (which I can).”

J. Miles

“I’ve been a fan since 2002. Been a season ticket holder for six years. I wasn’t blindsided by the increase. I expected that. How much it went up, did. I know that it's effected others. The increase was close to double what I pay.”

Jeff Hotard, Section 309

“I’ve been a season ticket holder for seven years now. You put New Orleans in front of anything and I am there cheering for that team. My seats went up 90 percent.”

Micah Gowan

“I’ve been a fan since I was about 10 years old. Being that tickets have gone up nearly $300 next year and the fact that I live one hour and 45 minutes away, I do not plan on purchasing season tickets next year.”

Kenny Kliebert

“Eight seasons as a full season ticket holder. The season before getting full season tickets I had a six-game package. The ticket prices went up 80% and the benefits were cut. For reference, I have friends who paid $700 last year for their seats who are now being charged $1220 to renew.”

“David Griffin, the new executive vice president of basketball operations, has preached building a culture and being loyal to the fans. By taking away the beer garden and other benefits, as well as increasing the prices, how is that a reflection of building a culture and having loyalty?”

Rel Myers, Section 319

“I’ve been a Pelicans/Hornets fan since the inaugural season in 2002. The 2019-2020 season is my second as a season ticket holder.”

“The new payment plan being two months shorter (eight months, as opposed to 10) made things a little more difficult. A few acquaintances of mine are not as lucky. I’m hearing people are paying anywhere between $200-$500 more for their tickets.”

“When I inquired with my rep about lower bowl tickets, only then did I find out that the payment plan was changed.”

Joe Lamb, Section 120

“I’ve been a Pelicans fan since we brought the team back in 2002. I’ve been a season ticket holder for about five years. I’ve seen the recent ticket changes take effect in a negative way. I have a friend that is no longer able to afford their seats because of the recent price hike. The price for my season tickets went up $200 which I wasn’t happy about. I’ll renew because I love basketball and I love Zion, but I can’t take another increase.”

NBA: Los Angeles Clippers at New Orleans Pelicans Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

Ticket increases weren’t the only alterations causing disappointment. Some other benefits cherished by fans are being cut in cost-saving measures such as paper tickets, discount cards, a season ticket book and an extended payment plan.

Season ticket holders also benefitted from access to the Pelicans’ “Beer Garden,” a spot for locals to grab a beer before the game and chat about the team’s chances each night. Moreso, it established a community for fans to foster relationships with one another.

“There has to be a value placed on allowing fans to gather and discuss the team pregame,” Hotard said. “New Orleans is a big community. To take away one of the premier social aspects of the game seems quite short sighted.”

“No more beer garden,” Kliebert said. “As of now no replacement has been given for the beer garden.”

“My wife and I really enjoy hanging out with fans before the game,” Phillips added. “The place that we did that was the Beer Garden. The friendships we have made there is why we re-upped our tickets before we even knew we were getting the number one pick. We have people from that group we are in group chats with and have even been to their house multiple times. And this is one of the incentives that the Pelicans are taking away from us.”

“I found out via automated email that I would have to pay $100 if I want a hard copy of my tickets (which was previously something given to me for free),” Myers said.

Oklahoma City Thunder v New Orleans Pelicans Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images

The Pelicans’ organization has made plenty of fruitful changes to excite the fanbase. From montages celebrating the spirit of the city, to an evolved and improved in-game experience, the quality of product has improved drastically.

But changes are coming fast and furious to season ticket holders who have been overwhelmed by the sweeping advancements.

“With the drastic cut in incentives, the cutting of the Beer Garden and the massive increase in prices, I do not see how my wife and I can justify paying for every game next year,” Phillips said.

“There’s no need for some things to change so drastically,” Myers said. “Some of us feel like the sales office has given us a huge middle finger. Charging us more and taking benefits away doesn’t add up. We’re willing to give the team our money, but they’re making it harder to do so.”

“I have spoken to near 50 season ticket holders,” Kliebert said. “...and everyone I spoke to have said they either plan to not renew or at the very least downgrade their package to less games.”

There seem to be too many stories like these expressing feelings of alienation, so brief into the team’s surge in popularity. This fanbase has endured a lower-quality product for nearly two decades. Imagine the disappointment of seeing dreams realized, only to be neglected and pushed aside for more substantial buyers.

Reasonably keeping the longstanding loyal fanbase a part of the future shouldn’t be a wish. It should be a pre-established priority.