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The Business Of Bringing 'Hornets' Back To Charlotte

After 12 years away, one of Charlotte's most beloved brands is coming home. Next season, Charlotte's NBA team will once again take the court as the Hornets. The Bobcats announced the change last summer, and the organization is taking about a year and a half to transition. WFAE's Michael Tomsic reports on the business of bringing the Hornets back.

Charlotte's NBA team needs new trash cans.

Sure, it's not the most glamorous part of rebranding. But Senior Vice President of Marketing Seth Bennett points out orange trash cans with Bobcats' logos throughout the arena. 

"On last count there may be 150 of those trash receptacles around the building that are in public places that you'd want to not have displaying the old logo once we make our transformation to the Hornets," he said.

It's easy to forget about all the little things in an arena that make it feel like home – until you have to change them all. Walking through, Bennett sees stickers, signs, paint, posters, logos - "there are literally thousands of things that have to be de-identified," he said.

The team estimates the total cost of the name-change will be more than $4 million. But executives say that's money well spent to get back a brand Charlotte used to be obsessed with. As one example, a local radio station used to play a song after games that included the line, "We don't care if you win or lose – we'll stand right by your side."

And fans really didn't care at first. Current assistant coach Mark Price was on the team that played against the Hornets in the franchise's first game in Charlotte in 1988.

"I remember that we actually won the game by about 40 points," Price said. "That didn't quell the enthusiasm of the (crowd). Every time they scored, they got a standing ovation. I remember a lot of people wearing tuxedos to the game."

From December of 1988 to November of 1997, the Hornets sold out every single home game. But attendance dropped as the relationship soured between fans and team owner George Shinn. Shinn couldn’t get a deal on a new arena, and he moved the team to New Orleans in 2002.

The Hornets never really caught on there, and the team spent two seasons in Oklahoma City after Hurricane Katrina. Eventually, the owner of New Orleans' NFL team bought the Hornets. 

"Well, first thing I got to show my new hat!" owner Tom Benson said as he put on a New Orleans Pelicans hat after changing the team's name about a year ago.

Ben Hales is in charge of marketing for the team.

"We wanted a name that spoke to this region, spoke to permanence and spoke to commitment to remaining here," Hales said.

The pelican is on Louisiana's state flag and seal. The "Hornets" name that New Orleans scrapped is tied to Charlotte's history. British General Charles Cornwallis once called Charlotte a hornets’ nest of rebellion.

Charlotte's second NBA team, the Bobcats, hadn't been very good or popular. Four months after "Hornets" became available, the Bobcats decided to bring back the buzz.   

"It immediately impacted our business for this year, where we're the Bobcats," Chief Sales and Marketing Officer Pete Guelli said, "because people are buying in right now so they can be part of the Hornets process next year on opening night."

Guelli said the team picked up more than 2,000 new season-ticket holders, all of whom can get the same seats for the same prices next season, when the Hornets take the court. 

That surge in interest is no surprise to NBA consultants like Jordan Schlachter.

"One of the great things about the Hornets from 20 years ago is people used to wear Hornets merchandise anywhere, whether it be New York or L.A., just because it was cool," he said.

Schlachter is executive vice president for The Marketing Arm, and he used to work for the NBA and the New York Knicks.

He said you still see the old school Hornets' purple and teal merchandise across the country. Now that the Charlotte team is selling that gear with a new twist, "on site, you're going to see a tremendous uptick in the size of the business for them," he said.

That's already happening in the team store. It's technically still the Bobcats' store, but about 80 percent of the merchandise is Hornets-related. And since rolling out the new gear, the team says it's set five single-day sales records.

"People seem to be picking the buzz back up," Alton Walker said as he was shopping with his young daughter before a recent game. He'd already bought her a Hornets hat.

"She just told me, she said, 'I don't know what I wear with it,' so she must not have any shoes that match. So that's what'll be coming next," Walker said with a smile.

Elsewhere in the store, Kendall Huneycutt was rocking a puffy, retro Hornets jacket.

"I got on eBay, looked for some old school stuff before it got too expensive - found one, wear it when I can," he said.

When asked if the retro gear is more expensive now, he replied, "Yeah, they've actually skyrocketed, and it's harder to find stuff now."

Huneycutt said he's recently seen his jacket online for a few hundred dollars. He bought it for $80.

There's never been this kind of demand for Bobcats merchandise. So what happens to all the leftover gear?

"There is no large warehouse of items," Seth Bennett, the marking vice president, said with a laugh. "If you don't see it, we don't have it."

Bennet said there's already about half as much Bobcats' gear left as the team thought there would be, and it's all somewhere in the arena.

Bottom line, Bobcats President Fred Whitfield said the team will come out ahead.

"The Hornets transition definitely will improve the value of our franchise and also improve our ability to go out and sell," he said.

But ultimately, Whitfield says the team has to put a better product on the court. Two seasons ago, the Bobcats had the worst winning percentage in NBA history. This season, they may make the playoffs.

Next season, they'll have a young core of talented players, a coaching staff with another year of experience, and a name that belongs in Charlotte.