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Nostalgia, money could follow ‘Hornets’ nickname
City may have affection for ‘Hornets’ but change has obstacles
The Charlotte Bobcats face a $3 million decision: Is it worth the investment to change the team’s name to “Hornets,” hoping to capture the nostalgia for Charlotte’s original NBA team?
Reports Tuesday said Tom Benson, the new owner of the New Orleans Hornets who said he wants to change his team’s nickname to something that represents that city, has chosen “Pelicans” as that new name.
“Hornets” might be available as soon as next season, so the Bobcats must decide if they want the name back in the city where it has over a 100-year history. Is there enough goodwill in the old teal-and-purple stripes, in terms of more tickets sold and more merchandise purchased, to justify the cost?
Probably, says a sports branding expert, but not definitely.
“There is enough nostalgia about that name that you could get some good karma from it,” said Joe Favorito, a professor of advanced sports marketing at Columbia University. “Would they stick around if the team isn’t good? Probably not. But that nickname could have the effect of getting some customers to give it a second look.”
Just last summer, in response to customer feedback, the team changed its colors to de-emphasize orange and shortened the name on the home jerseys to “Cats” in a branding shift. Another change could also upset other customers, some of whom have supported the Bobcats since the expansion franchise began playing nine seasons ago.
The Hornets nickname in Charlotte dates back to the Revolutionary War, when British General Charles Cornwallis compared the resistance in Charlotte to a hornet’s nest. It has been used in sports by a minor league baseball team (1901-73), an upstart football league team (1974-75) and the city’s first NBA franchise.
The NBA Hornets played in Charlotte from 1988 to 2002 before an arena dispute caused them to move to New Orleans. The NBA replaced the Hornets with an expansion team, the Bobcats, in 2004.
But the Bobcats have struggled to win, making the NBA playoffs once in their first eight seasons. Attendance at 19,000-seat Time Warner Cable Arena has lagged.
The team has never captured Charlotte’s attention the way the Hornets did at the Charlotte Coliseum, the since-demolished arena which was located off Tyvola Road. The “Hive,” as that 24,000-seat arena was known, once hosted 364 consecutive NBA sellouts for the Hornets.
The Hornets brand was hot, and not only in Charlotte. The teal and purple colors were unique, and Hornets gear was among the most popular NBA merchandise.
“This was one of the first teams to go with a designer – Alexander Julian. It was a departure from the standard look of NBA uniforms,” said Favorito, who formerly worked in media relations with the New York Knicks and Philadelphia 76ers. “They introduced something that really caught on, both in Charlotte and around the country.”
It’s still hot too. The NBA still sells Charlotte Hornets gear, which has become something of a fashion statement among teenagers and young adults for its distinctive look.
“What was cutting edge then is retro now,” Favorito said. “The Hornets playing in the Hive was probably as good a time as there’s been for (NBA) basketball in the Carolinas.
“With our economy being what it is today, people tend to look back for things they remember as good times.”
The buzz the Hornets created, and still create, has caught the Bobcats’ attention.
Former basketball great Michael Jordan, who bought the Bobcats from former owner Bob Johnson in 2010, said at the time one of his goals was to recreate the atmosphere he remembered from the Hive.
Is part of that atmosphere tied to the Hornets nickname? Maybe.
Jordan told the Observer last month he would explore a change if the Hornets nickname becomes available.
“We would definitely entertain the opportunity,” Jordan said. “We’ve heard the community ask the question, and we would listen.”
A change would thrill a grassroots campaign called “Bring Back the Buzz,” which has lobbied for a name change for more than a year.
Benson’s intention, as reported by Yahoo Sports, to rebrand his team “Pelicans” after Louisiana’s state bird, has stirred the interest.
Although the NBA will decide if and when Benson could change the name, Benson, who also owns the NFL’s New Orleans Saints, would like this resolved before the 2013-14 season.
If the New Orleans change happens, the NBA wouldn’t block moving the Hornets name back to Charlotte.
During a visit to Charlotte last April, deputy commissioner Adam Silver said “it’s something we would clearly look at,” if Jordan desires that change.
Silver added that while it normally takes two years for the NBA to change a team name, but this could be a simpler process since the league already owns the name “Charlotte Hornets.”
Planning for possibility
Bobcats management can’t say much until New Orleans does something officially. But the team is planning for the possibility of a name change, which would cost at least $3 million, team president Fred Whitfield told the Observer on Wednesday.
The team has prepared, though. A marketing study of Charlotte the team commissioned during the summer of 2010, couldn’t ask specific questions about the Hornets, but did poll Charlotteans on the name “Bobcats.”
The results might surprise you.
According to chief sales and marketing officer Pete Guelli, more than 60 percent of those polled liked the name Bobcats; about 20 percent advocated a name change.
Guelli said negative reaction to the color scheme, which was predominantly orange, caused the team to change the colors as part of last summer’s rebranding.
Whitfield said the franchise would be particularly conscious of its current customers’ preference in contemplating a name change.
“As part of our due diligence process, it would be very important to get response from our current stakeholders,” Whitfield said, referring to ticket-buyers and sponsors. “Some of them have invested in us for nine years as Bobcats fans.”
Giving team another chance
Favorito says a name change from Bobcats to Hornets could bring back an older customer base that was possibly turned off by the first team’s departure for New Orleans.
“There is value to the Charlotte franchise in the name ‘Hornets,’ particularly among older people with the disposable income to buy tickets,” Favorito said. “They were in their 20s when the Hive was happening. Maybe they’d come back if the name did.
“Most people still think the Hornets belong in Charlotte from a name standpoint.”
Count among them ex-Bobcats guard Raymond Felton, who grew up in Latta, and occasionally attended Hornets games growing up. Now playing for the Knicks, Felton said a name change back to Hornets is a no-brainer.
“Everybody knows the Charlotte Hornets,” Felton said. “Bringing back that name would help a little bit in bringing back those fans that they lost.
“I think they’ll eventually change it back to the Hornets.”
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