After a 20+-year hiatus, the NBA returned to the Big Easy in 2002 with the Hornets (later rebranded as the Pelicans) adopting New Orleans as their new home after a 14-year stint in Charlotte. A distant second to the Saints (also owned by the Benson family) in popularity, the NBA has never quite taken off in New Orleans with the Pelicans, despite the presence of stars like Anthony Davis and Zion Williamson, consistently ranking near the bottom of the league in attendance. The short-lived New Orleans Jazz battled many of the same issues throughout their brief existence in the 1970s.
The team’s lease with the city only runs through 2024, raising significant questions about the Pelicans long-term future in New Orleans. The Pelicans feel, in many ways, like a doomed franchise. Whenever one of their homegrown stars gets big enough (the 20-year-old Williamson is already nearing that point), it seems only a matter of time until they defect to a more prestigious team in a larger media market.
According to former Memphis Grizzlies executive John Hollinger, now a hoops columnist for The Athletic, the Pelicans are thought of as the most likely NBA franchise to relocate in the next decade. Hollinger adds that while Gayle Benson (who inherited the team from her late husband, Tom, in 2018) remains “deeply connected” to New Orleans, the struggling Pelicans have not been “an enjoyable side venture” for her, hemorrhaging money with little in the way of on-court success (New Orleans has qualified for the playoffs just twice in its last nine seasons, never advancing past the second round).
The NBA has teased the idea of expansion, which could protect the Pelicans from relocating to one of Seattle (new part-owner Alex Rodriguez has already earmarked Seattle as a potential landing spot for the T-Wolves) or Las Vegas. There’s also the possibility of the Pelicans, led by their tent pole Williamson, returning to prominence in the next few years, elevating their status both in the community and in the eyes of the NBA. That would make it easier to envision the Pelicans staying in New Orleans—and perhaps upgrading their arena (the Smoothie King Center, built in 1999, has already become laughably outdated)—beyond 2024. But a mass exodus out of the city, brought on by the team’s continued ineptitude and exacerbated by an increasingly lethargic fan base, would be equally plausible.