By John Bauman
Photo: AP Photo/Chris Carlson
December 22, 2020
After a walk through the basketball wilderness, the sports gods delivered a gift and a north star for the Charlotte Hornets franchise.
LaMelo Ball, a 6-foot-7 do-it-all guard, was drafted third overall in the 2020 NBA Draft by the Charlotte Hornets. He’s a magician on the court– slinging three-point shots with his trebuchet-like form and sliding no-look passes to teammates without hesitation. His up-tempo style has given the Hornets an identity and a blueprint for how to get back into the playoff picture.
View this post on Instagram
But his impact stretches far beyond the teal baselines in the Spectrum Center. By selecting LaMelo Ball in November, the Hornets selected not only one of the draft’s highest ceiling players but one with rising off-the-court value who can finally end the search for a star player in Charlotte.
Ball hails from one of the great basketball families of the modern era– he’s a Ball brother, along with New Orleans Pelicans guard Lonzo and LiAngelo, the latter of whom was cut from the Pistons earlier this preseason. The Ball family also includes outspoken father Lavar Ball, who’s made a name for himself by utilizing media platforms to gain mass attention from basketball fans across the world. Thus, despite the fact that both Lonzo and LaMelo were drafted in the top three of their respective NBA Drafts, the Ball family may be best known for their off-the-court adventures.
Ball’s family has a reality TV show on the Facebook platform called Ball In The Family. That show, which features the Ball family’s reality television hijinx, has one million likes and over two million followers as of December 2020.
All that hype has translated into a massive social media following for the youngest of the Ball brothers, LaMelo. His six million Instagram followers is well north of the Hornet’s 1.3 million followers, and is far more than many established NBA superstars and his fellow draftees. For some perspective, Charlotte native Patrick Williams, the fourth pick of the draft, has just 55k followers on Instagram.
That kind of following presents an opportunity to positively impact the Hornet’s bottom line while also bringing more attention to the city and organization.
In a normal year, the Hornets likely would have seen a burst of energy to season ticket sales after drafting a player of Ball’s caliber. In 2019, No. 1 pick Zion Williamson helped the New Orleans Pelicans sell 12,000-plus season tickets, according to nola.com. But with the ongoing pandemic, the Hornets will begin the season without fans.
This LaMelo dime is unreal 😳 pic.twitter.com/vzt0Pmuiqv
— Bleacher Report (@BleacherReport) December 20, 2020
Ball, who won Australia’s National Basketball League Rookie of the Year during the 2019-20 season, likely wouldn’t have matched Williamson’s ticket-moving potential for Charlotte, but he would have helped move the needle for a Hornets franchise that has often been near the bottom of the league in ticket sales.
In the 2019-20 NBA season, the Hornets tied for 28th of out 30 NBA franchises in attendance. The club averaged 15,438 fans for its 31 home games last season. Only Minnesota, with an average attendance of 15,066 fans, ranked lower. The franchise will have to wait to see if that changes with Ball on the roster.
But, even without boosted ticket revenue, there are many ways that Ball’s celebrity will benefit the franchise at large.
As it stood in July 2020, the Hornets ranked 29 out of 30 NBA teams in Facebook fans with 1.71 million, per Statista. Only the Atlanta Hawks, with 1.59 million, had fewer. For Charlotte, it’s a reality of being a small-market NBA franchise.
More social media followers generally translates into more sponsorship opportunities and additional revenue for NBA franchises. And, on the most basic level, it means more chances to engage with Hornets fans online.
— Charlotte Hornets (@hornets) November 20, 2020
That engagement is also showing up in the data. The three highest periods of search traffic for “Charlotte Hornets” are the team’s playoff run in 2016, a brief jump at the beginning of the 2019-20 season and the week surrounding the selection of Ball at the 2020 NBA Draft, per Google Trends. This reflects the excitement around Ball locally and the interest nationally in his future stint with the Hornets.
The television product is another big way that Ball can make an off-the-court impact on Michael Jordan’s franchise. Per a February 2020 Sports Business Daily article, Charlotte ranked second-lowest in the NBA with an average TV rating of 0.44. Those low ratings can’t just be written off for being a small-market franchise. Milwaukee and Oklahoma City rank in the top five in the same list.
The inclusion of LaMelo could be an antidote. His preseason highlight-reel plays– particularly his passing in transition– have backed up the all hype so far. Ball has the unique ability to hit a streaking teammate in stride on a fast-break, igniting opportunities for easy buckets. That skill has already been on display with some amazing dimes and alley-oops in the Hornets’ four preseason games. Most importantly, his addition to the team’s backcourt could help improve the clubs’ win-loss record. Ultimately, that’s what will be the main driver of ratings locally for the team.
The NBA released the first half of the NBA’s National TV Schedule with the season starting on December 22 and running until March 4, 2021. Charlotte has one national TV game in the first half of the season– a Friday, January 8 matchup against the New Orleans Pelicans, matching the Ball brothers on ESPN. That’s already more than seven other NBA franchises who didn’t get any national TV games in the first release of the schedule.
National TV games for the 2020-21 season:
Lakers – 16
Celtics – 14
Mavericks – 14
Pelicans – 14
Warriors – 14
Nets – 13
Bucks – 12
Clippers – 11
Heat – 10
76ers – 9
Suns – 9
Rockets – 7
Nuggets – 6
Blazers – 5
Jazz – 4
Raptors – 4
Grizzlies – 3
— NBA Central (@TheNBACentral) December 5, 2020
The national TV schedule is driven by the league’s best teams, but also by the NBA’s most marketable players. The Pelicans, who missed the playoffs last season, appear on national television 14 times in the first half of the season. With a must-see star in Zion Williamson, the NBA can’t be blamed for doing so. Thus, the Hornets’ national TV games could rise in the season’s second act if Ball captures headlines and the team gets off to a hot start, making some noise in the race for Eastern Conference playoff spots.
A path to contending for one of those playoff spots has seemed hazy since Kemba Walker took his talents to the Boston Celtics. For so many years, Walker was the face of the Hornets franchise. His clutch shooting kept the Hornets afloat on the court and his big smile gave Charlotte a bright star. Now, the LaMelo effect is taking over. He’s not the All-Star player that Kemba was yet, but he’s bringing a high level of attention to Charlotte.
While we may not know yet if the Charlotte Hornets long walk through the basketball wilderness will be coming to an end, a new era filled with highlights of no-look LaMelo passes and more media attention for the franchise awaits.