In July, the Charlotte Hornets announced they would hold training camp on UNC's campus from Sept. 25 to 27 and play a preseason game in the Smith Center, against the Boston Celtics, on Sept. 28. Summer Sports Editor Jack Frederick spoke with Pete Guelli, the Hornets' executive vice president and chief operating officer, about the organization's decision to travel to Chapel Hill and the process to make it happen.
The Daily Tar Heel: Why Chapel Hill?
Pete Guelli: Honestly, we looked at a number of different markets and part of the process of going on the road is the ability to regionalize your brand. And after we did a lengthy analysis of all the different potential available markets, we just kept circling back to Chapel Hill. There's a number of natural connections through our owner and our (general manager). We love the idea of taking camp to the cradle of basketball and that area of North Carolina is an important area for us to market our team as well. You really check all the boxes you could want.
DTH: Walk me through the decision making process, how long it took to make the decision and when discussions started.
PG: We really started looking at it probably about six months ago or so, and we started to kind of isolate different markets and opportunities and then, once some of the changes started to happen on the basketball side, we obviously needed to get some input there if our business is well. And again, we started to really zero in on Chapel Hill as a potential market. The other thing that made a lot of sense is we really wanted to pack in the camp with a preseason game. As we started looking into that and the ability to take the team into a place like Chapel Hill to prepare for the season and then play a game in the Dean Dome, it just started to come together as the absolute perfect scenario for us.
DTH: For clarity, did the process for narrowing in on a location or negotiating with UNC start six months ago?
PG: It was probably six or eight months ago when we started looking at potentially alternative sites and then the probably last four to six really focusing in on Chapel Hill.
DTH: It seems, logistically, that it would be easier to just have training camp in Charlotte. Why hold it somewhere else?
PG: We haven't gone off site since 2014, but we felt like this year with all the changes and a new coaching staff and coach (James) Borrego trying to institute a new culture, that getting away, getting outside the facilities where we could really lock in and bond and focus on basketball would be in the best interest of the organization.
DTH: Would you say colleges campuses are prime locations for an NBA training camp because of the facilities and the ability to just plug the team in?
PG: They're uniquely prepared to handle a high-level sports franchise, but a lot of it has to do with walking back on a college campus. In some ways, it can be cathartic for your entire organization. When you're preparing for a season as grueling as an NBA season, to go to a place like Chapel Hill, with all the history, just creates a lot of energy and excitement for your players. One thing I'll mention is that, a few years ago we went to China in the preseason, and when we first started talking about it internally, I think it was met with a lot of skepticism, going on the road and taking all that time out of the preseason to prepare. But we committed to it, and, ultimately, it might have been one of the best things we've ever done. It ended up that the team just really bonded when they were there and could focus on nothing but basketball. We came back and had a 48-win season, one of our best seasons ever. Sometimes getting away can be the best thing you can do for an organization.
DTH: With UNC connections in general manager Mitch Kupchak and owner Michael Jordan, how much did those two push for Chapel Hill?
PG: As we started to evaluate markets, Chapel Hill quickly rose to the top of the list and a lot of it is because of the comfort level that ownership and the front office have with that area of North Carolina, with the facilities, with the relationships. It just seemed to be a great fit. And then ultimately, it's the cradle of basketball. If you're going to take your team off site and prepare them for a season, there can't be too many better places in North Carolina, let alone the country to do something like this.
DTH: Who all was a part of this process on the Hornets' and UNC's end?
PG: On the Hornets end, myself, our team president Fred Whitfield; our chief administrative officer, James Jordan; obviously Mitch Kupchak; and Buzz Peterson were part of the discussions. We were consulting with ownership every step of the way. Obviously, there's a high level of comfort with coach (Roy) Williams and using him to consult and make sure he felt comfortable having us on campus. He felt like it was a good fit and the facilities and all were all where they needed to be ,and that they would be able to execute what an NBA team would need within that window. That helped put us in position where we felt like Chapel Hill was the right place. Their AD (Bubba Cunningham) was also heavily involved. I wasn't in on a couple more granular parts of the negotiation, but I know he was heavily involved too.
DTH: What logistically had to be worked out in negotiations to make this happen?
PG: More than anything, it was about facilities and really, ease of use and execution. If you're bringing an NBA team in there, making sure we can find the right accommodations for the guys, making sure the practice facilities are right, making sure from a nutrition standpoint everything in there, strength and conditioning needs. And then obviously, making sure if we're going to host a game there that everything is there to accommodate it as well. There was a number of what we would call executional aspects that need to be right if you're going to bring an NBA team into the market. All those needs were met.
DTH: What kind of access will there be for fans and the media?
PG: It's a pretty traditional schedule. Typically, there's some availability post-practice every day with some guys. It's pretty similar to what we do here. What makes it a little bit different is having the game in the Dean Dome. We went on sale with tickets last week and sales have been exceptional. The last time we went off site for a preseason game was in Greensboro three years ago. The first three days of on-sale, this game has already outsold that one. There's been a tremendous response to it and then our TV partner FOX has picked it up and they will be televising the game as well, so obviously it's going to be accessible for students on site, but also broadcast throughout the Carolinas.
DTH: What would you say has been the reaction since the announcement was made?
PG: I think it has been extremely positive. For sales to be that brisk that early for a preseason game has been a great sign. I think the combination of the legacy of our owner and our GM in that marketplace, the Hornets' brand, bringing a marquee opponent in the Celtics in, the fact that we haven't been there in 10 years ... I think when you factor those all together, it creates a perfect storm of opportunity and we're seeing that response in ticket sales right now.
DTH: If this goes well, will holding training camp on a college campus be a consideration again in the near future?
PG: I think a lot of it has to do with our GM and our coach and how the experience goes for them. I would anticipate that it goes very well, but what we typically do is after any opportunity like this, we will regroup afterwards, sit down and see what the future might look like, but I would anticipate that if it went well, I would expect we would be back, maybe as soon as next year.
DTH: Is there anything else you'd like to add?
PG: One thing I wanted to note is sales are obviously going great, but we have a 40-percent discount in place for students. We are going to make sure there's some inventory available. We would really love as many students as we can from the college to come out as possible. I know a lot of them don't get back until August, but we'll make sure there's tickets available; we'll make sure that we hold that 40-percent discount for them because we really want them to be a part of what we're doing.