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Zion Williamson could help Pelicans thrive in New Orleans

Listed in Forbes’ prominent annual rankings as one of the NBA’s least valuable franchises and with a fan base that is at best indifferent, the New Orleans Pelicans have been frequently rumored as a candidate to move to Las Vegas.

That might have changed Tuesday when the Pelicans won the NBA draft lottery and the right to draft Duke star Zion Williamson. The Pelicans reportedly took about 2,000 new season-ticket requests after the lottery.

The Pelicans need the financial boost. They were second-to-last in the NBA in franchise value in this year’s Forbes rankings. Their value of $1.22 billion was just ahead of the last-place Memphis Grizzlies’ $1.2 billion. The Grizzlies also have often been rumored to move to Las Vegas.

In the Pelicans’ case, such a move probably wouldn’t take place before 2024 when their arena lease expires. Owner Gayle Benson also declared in March that the Pelicans weren’t going anywhere.

“There’s no way that I’m going to sell that team. Ever,” Benson told the Times-Picayune.

Mike Ozanian, who co-wrote the Forbes article on NBA franchise values, said Wednesday that Benson’s struggle to gain control of the team after her husband, Tom, died last year makes it more likely the Pelicans will stay.

But he noted there is more upside for a team in Southern Nevada compared to New Orleans. The Pelicans were 25th in attendance this season, according to ESPN, with an average crowd of 16,004. That was a drop from 16,835 the year before.

“If they were in Las Vegas, (Williamson) would help a great deal because it’s a much better market,” Ozanian said. “Not only is it a bigger market, but as gambling comes more into fruition in the NBA, certainly in Las Vegas he would add a great deal to the value. Even just moving there would add value without him.

“If they were in Las Vegas, they would be at least a middle-of-the-pack team in terms of value.”

The Pelicans need Williamson, by far the most talked-about college player this past season, to inject life into the franchise.

“This is under the assumption they keep (disgruntled power forward) Anthony Davis, so that’s going to make them a much better attraction,” Ozanian said. “It will help them generate more revenue from the arena. The problem is it’s not a great arena in terms of revenue, and it’s a very small market, so there’s a limit to how much they can actually charge.

“No matter what happens, they can’t charge (Los Angeles) or New York prices, Chicago prices or Boston prices, even Miami prices.”

Sports business expert, Bryce Erickson of financial advisory firm Mercer Capital in Memphis, Tennessee, was more optimistic about what Williamson could mean to the Pelicans.

“Someone who’s drafted at the No. 1 slot and brings excitement and expectations for better performance and better wins, that immediately generates a fan base and can increase season-ticket sales,” Erickson said. “It can motivate you from a sponsorship standpoint. Maybe the sponsors now are more confident that Anthony Davis will stay.

“With Zion Williamson and potentially other moves that they will make, you will have a team that can be highly competitive for a championship, bring more people in town, and therefore more eyeballs would get exposure to whatever sponsorship you would want.”

Williamson could try to force a trade, but Erickson said that might not be bad.

“That depends on the facts and circumstances of how that plays out,” Erickson said.

Ozanian had a hard time finding positives for New Orleans if Williamson forces his way out.

“That pretty much solidifies them where they are,” Ozanian said. “If they (trade Williamson), then clearly they’re going to have a hard time getting good players there.”

Contact Mark Anderson at manderson@reviewjournal.com. Follow @markanderson65 on Twitter.

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