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"Charlotte Business" and the Bobcats

There's a passage on Bobcats Baseline that I like so much I'm reproducing it in full here:

For the NBA to succeed in Charlotte, the team will need an owner who’s capable of conducting "Charlotte Business."  You know, Good ‘ol BoyHow’s Yer Mama and Daddy – kind of business.  The kind that attracts big regional partnerships and sponsorships.  Very local, very social, very political, very congenial and (most importantly) very accessible.  I’m not so sure that MJ is any of these things quite yet.  Sure, he gets a partial-pass simply for being the greatest NBA player of all time and for being a local High School & Collegiate star but that only goes so far.

This captures a large part of why I think NBA ball in Charlotte has a tough road ahead. In many ways, the Charlotte Bobcats are a sociological experiment: can a professional sports team survive in a market easily large enough to support it, but with as hostile an environment as possible?

The Bobcats are in a position unique to major American pro sports. Perhaps the only other comparable situation was the New York Mets of the early 1960s, after the Giants and Dodgers bolted for California. But even that situation wasn't as hostile to Major League Baseball as the Cats' situation is to the NBA.

New York City residents tend to believe their city deserves the best of everything, and if they have something approximating the best of something, they'll adamantly insist it is the best. Thus, lacking National League baseball was a blight upon the city, and when the Mets came to be, they instantly became an institution. Sure, there were plenty of people who loved their Giants and loved their Dodgers, but by their third season, the Mets were second in the league in attendance. It's pretty clear the city's non-Yankees fans still loved baseball enough to embrace the new team.

Here in Charlotte, there's a sense the region is under attack, a change that roughly corresponds with the rise and fall of the Hornets, and is a larger social change than I can cover in full, but that has huge consequences for the Bobcats.

In 1988, the Hornets started play, and the city of Charlotte took to them with the fervor of proud new parents. That first season, Charlotte led the league in attendance, and they would be first or second in total attendance through the 1997-98 season.

At the same time pro basketball was thriving in North Carolina, the country's overall economy was riding the tech boom to an unprecedented prosperity combined with low unemployment rates, and Mecklenburg county was growing at a ridiculous rate. Between the 1980 and 1990 censuses, Mecklenburg's population grew more than 25%. While I can't find the 1990 information, in 2000, just under one-third of the state's residents were born in another state, strongly implying that the population growth was largely driven by transplants migrating from more expensive and colder areas in the northeast to warmer climes in the Sun Belt where houses could be had for under $100,000. I'd guess this was the same population shift that inspired NationsBank to buy the larger Bank of America in 1998, and spurred the National Hockey League's expansion to southern states.

Go back to the quote above from Bobcats Baseline. I've got a personal anecdote to share about the notion of "Charlotte business". The Official Dad of Rufus on Fire has worked for Bank of America for over 30 years as a computer programmer and systems administrator. He loves his coworkers and loves his job. When Nations bought BofA, the one thing I remember him talking about was the sheer culture shock everyone involved was going through. He's a San Francisco man, born and raised, and has lived elsewhere for only four other years of his life, the four years he went to college in Portland, Oregon, so "Charlotte business" was difficult for him and his co-workers to understand, and I think it worried him that his bank's culture might be changing into something he didn't know.

I distinctly remember him mentioning that the Charlotteans always used the pronoun "she" when talking about bank tellers, and "he" when talking about bank managers. There was also this strange custom of meetings taking a break every 45 minutes, because in California, smoking was not allowed indoors, whereas in North Carolina the Nations people had simply smoked in the boardrooms. These are just a couple examples; a lot of other incidents happened over time that highlighted the Charlotte-ness of the bank's executives.

Obviously, the Official Dad adapted, and he's still with the bank, but what I got from the whole experience, in the end, was exactly what Bobcats Baseline is getting at. Even though Nations had instantly become one of the largest banks in the world, they wanted to run it like a regional Carolina bank, the same way they'd always run it. It's not that they think it's necessarily the best way to run a business, but that it's a statement of regional pride to run a business in that manner. What's good enough for business between Carolinians is good enough for business between anybody.

Which is why I think the natives feel, explicitly or not, that the region is under attack. With so many transplants (me, included), the Carolina Way is disappearing. It doesn't matter as much to the Massachusetts people or the New York people or the Pennsylvania people or the California people that the local NBA franchise owner isn't particularly personable and doesn't really mingle among the people because that's not his expected role to us. To the native folks, it was a major affront to their way of life that Bob Johnson didn't see that as one of his responsibilities, leading to debacles such as the moment he chided local businesses for not stepping up and supporting the local team, even though from their point of view he was acting like an arrogant jerk because he wasn't stopping by the storefront to shake hands and shoot the bull. He didn't even make a show of respecting the local culture.

In 1997, George Shinn, owner of the Hornets, was accused of kidnapping and assaulting a woman. He also asked the public to build his team a new arena. Attendance dropped to sixth in the league, then eleventh, then twenty-first, then last, and then the team was gone to New Orleans.

There were two seasons without NBA ball in Charlotte, and then the Bobcats came to be, in the 2004-05 season. In many ways, it was exactly the wrong time to bring the NBA back to Charlotte. Not only had Shinn completely destroyed his franchise's relationship with the city, leaving still-fresh wounds, not only was the new owner someone who was ill-prepared to deal with this region's uniquely fierce pride and ritualized social customs, and not only were the natives feeling threatened by the influx of transplants who had turned their town into a major financial hub in the South and were slowly chipping away the town's character, but the housing bubble was about to burst, leaving the region in an odd limbo, divided between significant populations of transplants and natives, each with very different ideas about what the region should be.

Over the next few years, we're going to see fewer people streaming into town from the northeast, because housing prices are no longer irresistible compared to the prices in their neck of the woods. For a while, at least, until the next big migration phenomenon, I think this region is going to be stuck in a tense pose, figuring out an identity that blends northeastern social mores with the Carolinian spirit, and that extends to the Bobcats.

The Cats are, like it or not, a symbol of outsider influence in Charlotte. The Hornets were of and by Charlotte, the beloved firstborn, whereas the Bobcats are, to too many people, a weak excuse for a replacement child. An outside, New York-based, organization had a hand in yanking the Hornets away, and then that same organization saw fit to "grant" the locals another franchise to make up and make nice, only they didn't really consult with what the locals wanted -- they didn't stop by the storefront, shoot the bull, and really attempt to smooth over hard feelings. And then the outside organization sold the team to an outsider owner, and those outsiders convinced the local government to finance and hand over a brand new arena, despite a non-binding resolution vote against it.

All of which is why I keep saying that it's a good thing the Bobcats have massive penalties attached to leaving Charlotte, because they'd be in Seattle, Kansas City, or Pittsburgh by now without those stipulations. And it's also pretty much a given that, unlike the Mets, or any other expansion franchise in American sports history, the Bobcats will have to wait for children to embrace the team and grow up as fans in order to become an institution in the community. The adult transplants won't do it because they're, by and large, fans of other teams already. Worse, the adult natives won't do it because becoming a fan of the Bobcats is something akin to befriending the murderer of one's child. That may be melodramatic, but if you were one of those people who loved the Hornets with all your heart and are now a passionate Bobcats fan, well... good luck finding many other people like you.

The more I think about Michael Jordan's acquisition of the team, the more I think we're headed for the same issues that plagued the team under Bob Johnson, because Jordan is not at all inclined to play by local rules. He's an international guy who sees the world through an international lens. Maybe it will work out in some kind of backdoor way, with Jordan receding into the background using his considerable leverage on only the largest-scale projects, with a charismatic consigliere stepping forward to be the face of the franchise and day to day operator, like Dana White does for UFC. But more likely, I fear, Jordan will think he can master the front office challenge, once and for all, on his terms, and it won't work, because he doesn't have the capacity to learn "Charlotte business". Just you wait. No matter how successful the team may get on the court, it will be dogged by the notion that management just doesn't understand the fan base.