As Saints owner Tom Benson put the finishing touches on his purchase of New Orleans’ NBA franchise in 2012, he tasked his brain trust with promptly accomplishing three things.
He wanted them to change the name of the team to one with a local flavor, get the home arena renovated and sell the venue’s naming rights to boost the organization’s financial viability in New Orleans, Benson’s vice president of corporate sponsorships, Jean-Paul Dardenne, recalled.
When the 2013-14 NBA season tipped off, the team’s name had been changed from the Hornets to the Pelicans, and its 14-year-old arena had undergone the first phase of a $50 million renovation. Only one box remained unchecked — until this week, when the owner of a company that was founded in Kenner four decades ago agreed to slap the name of his corporation onto the building next to the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
Benson, New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu and Jefferson Parish President John Young were among the dignitaries who showed up at the newly dubbed Smoothie King Center on Thursday to thank Smoothie King’s owner and CEO, Wan Kim, for agreeing to a 10-year naming-rights sponsorship at the arena.
Kim — whose company has the option to renew the arrangement for another 10 years — also watched videotaped messages from Gov. Bobby Jindal and NBA Commissioner Adam Silver.
Pelicans brass didn’t disclose the price of the deal with Smoothie King, which took about a year to finalize as the NBA verified that the company’s nutritional offerings complied with the league’s substance policies. But they’ve portrayed the sponsorship as the franchise’s latest move to independently generate revenue following a deal designed to free Louisiana from making annual payments to the team.
The arena renovation was also part of that deal.
“It’s really necessary in this business,” Benson said when asked about the new revenue stream the yearly sponsorship payments represent for the Pelicans, who — like the Saints — are not receiving inducement guarantee payments from the state. “It was all a part of the plan, and it’s going to be great.”
Kim was the toast of a news conference that made the Smoothie King Center moniker official Thursday. During the gathering, there was talk about how exciting the future seems for the Pelicans, led by star Anthony Davis. The team is only six games below .500, despite having numerous players injured, and has one of the youngest lineups in the league, which will hold its All-Star Game Weekend at the Smoothie King Center starting Feb. 14.
And now Kim has entered the picture.
Kim purchased Smoothie King in July 2012 from Steve and Cindy Kuhnau, who started the company in Kenner in 1973. Kim learned about Smoothie King while he was studying in Boston. He subsequently became a franchisee and opened more than 100 stores in South Korea, his home country, before the Kuhnaus sold the company to him.
Kim considered moving the headquarters of Smoothie King — which has almost 700 stores across the U.S. and in Asia — to either Atlanta or Dallas. But, supposedly after going to dinner at Commander’s Palace with Jefferson Parish officials, he opted to simply transfer his operations out of Covington and across Lake Pontchartrain to Metairie.
“We gave him a lot of wine and convinced him to stay” in the region, Young joked Thursday.
Kim said other factors also swayed him to keep Smoothie King in the area and move his wife and three children to Metairie: the obvious love his corporate headquarters employees had for greater New Orleans, the charm of the region’s non-stop festivals and the fact that it was OK for him to drink alcohol with lunch.
“People told me when you come to New Orleans, there’s either love or hate — no in between,” Kim said. “Guess which side I’m on?”
Then, last year, his company and the Pelicans began exploring the possibility of a naming-rights sponsorship at the New Orleans Arena.
For the Pelicans, “it truly was having a company that was created here, that local people would be proud of because it was one of their own,” Jean-Paul Dardenne said after the news conference.
For Kim, it was a way to get Smoothie King’s name constantly mentioned in front of the NBA’s worldwide audience. The NBA is followed in 215 countries and territories as well as in 47 languages. The league’s TV network reaches subscribers in 97 countries and territories, and its website last season reportedly set all-time records with 9.6 billion page views and 5.6 billion video streams.
Kim said he couldn’t think of a better way to fulfill Smoothie King’s goal of tripling in size in the next five years. “This is a great opportunity for us to grow our brands domestically and internationally,” said Kim, whose negotiations with the Pelicans also produced discussion of a possible exhibition game in Seoul for the team.
There was no shortage of community leaders thankful for Kim’s ambitions for Smoothie King.
“Smoothie King is a great example of how Louisiana products are being sold everywhere,” Jindal said in his message to Kim and the Pelicans. “This is a great marriage between two great Louisiana institutions.”