Hugh Weber will never forget the first sporting event in Louisiana after Hurricane Katrina — a seemingly insignificant NBA game hosted by the New Orleans Hornets in the winter of 2005, just months after the city was devasted by the storm.
It was one of six games the Hornets — who had temporarily relocated to Oklahoma City — agreed to come back and play that season. Weber, then the team’s president, was stunned by its impact.
“You have to imagine what it was like then,” he said. “There were people living in their cars, living in FEMA trailers, sleeping on their neighbors’ couches. They didn’t have homes.
“But I had people come up to me, literally crying, and saying: ‘This is the best thing. The fact that this game is happening gives me hope that my life will get back to normal.’”
Weber has thought back to those days a lot since the COVID-19 pandemic shut down New Jersey and the global sports landscape.
The comparison is not in the numbers. Though Katrina’s impact on its community — more than 1,700 deaths, an economy that was ground to a halt and an area where more than 70% of homes were destroyed or damaged — make it one of the few events even remotely analogous to COVID-19.
Weber, now the president of Harris Blitzer Sports & Entertainment, said the comparison to Katrina comes out in the words he hears people say.
“I’m not a sociologist, but I tend to listen to the language people use,” he said. “And I’m hearing the same language as I heard in Katrina. People are saying, ‘I just want to get back to where we were.’ Or: ‘I just want to hang out with my friends. I just want to hang out at my favorite bar. I just want to go to a game.”
Sports he said, gives us balance.
“Sports is part of our American culture and is part of what we define as normal in our lives,” he said. “I think that’s why the president and others are so focused on getting sports back.
“When sports come back, it will make it feel like everything else is fine. That was true for Katrina.”
It won’t be the same. And it certainly will not be like it was before.
The New Jersey Devils and the NHL — like every other sports team and their league — are running through the possibilities of how games can take place in both the immediate future (whenever that is) and the long-term future.
What that will look like — how arenas will enforce whatever social distancing rules are in effect — still is being debated. Weber said the Prudential Center is preparing for every scenario, knowing the eventual concept is likely to change almost immediately.
On one hand, the outlook appears bleak.
Gov. Phil Murphy, just this week, said large-scale sports and entertainment events will be a most difficult challenge moving forward. He was speaking about events at MetLife Stadium, but his thoughts apply at smaller venues, too.
“I’m not saying never again — but packing 75 or 80,000 people, sandwiched beside each other at some sort of an event … it’s going to be hard to get to that,” he said.
Weber, speaking on a Zoom call, is unfazed. In fact, he remains bullish on the industry. In one way, he says a world that forces so many to stay apart will help events that bring so many together.
“Imagine a future world where someone is doing their profession primarily in front of a screen, connecting with other human beings on video calls, as we are doing now,” he said. “Does that person want to sit and watch TV at the end of the day, or do they want to go hang out with 15,000 people at a concert or a sporting event? I will choose the latter.”
Ironically, this could help venues solve a previous problem. Consumers were so exhausted from traveling to and from the workplace on weekdays that going to a game on a weeknight was not appealing.
“I think the paradigm has changed,” he said. “I think it’s going to be an incredible outlet for people.”
Weber said you can see it now.
“I walk in my neighborhood at night and people are pulling their lawn chairs out into their front yards, just so they can sit across the street from neighbors,” he said. “We used to do that in the backyard, now we’re doing it in the front, because we need that human connection.
“I think that’s where sports and live entertainment have an opportunity.”
Weber won’t offer a guess about when sports might return in this country. He said it’s counterproductive to even think that way.
“When you have a major shift in your lifestyle, whatever it is, for whatever reason, I think setting mileposts is a bad thing,” he said. “It’s not the healthiest way to focus.”
Weber learned that in Katrina.
The team ended up staying in Oklahoma City for two seasons — but it never lost touch with its fans in New Orleans. It quickly understood how powerful and important a bond that was.
Sports, Weber learned, can be a source of hope and a signal of normalcy.
“Sports is an incredible platform for that,” he said. “What I experienced in Katrina defied logic. And, I think when we come out of this, you will see sports defy logic again.”