Pensacola Mayor Ashton Hayward is in the Big Easy today meeting with New Orleans Pelicans executives about bringing their new minor league basketball team to Pensacola.

“We need to be embracing going after any kind of positive business opportunity,” Hayward said Wednesday.

Officials from the Pelicans reached out to Hayward’s office in March, inviting Pensacola to submit a proposal to host the Pelicans’ upcoming NBA development league team, which is set to begin play in the 2018-2019 season. Pensacola is one of five finalist cities for the team, along with Mobile, Ala., Jackson, Miss., and the Louisiana cities of Baton Rouge and Shreveport.

The team would be owned and operated by New Orleans’ Benson family, which also owns the Pelicans as well as the New Orleans Saints football team.

The Pensacola Bay Center would be the most likely venue for a NBA-affiliated minor league basketball team. (Drew Buchanan/The Pulse)

An online petition asking local officials to support recruiting the team to Pensacola has garnered more than 300 signatures.

“This is just preliminary discussions on why Pensacola is a great place to live, work, and play, a great place to do business, a great place for the Pelicans to really seriously think about bringing a team,” Hayward said.

Joining Hayward for the presentation are staff from the Pensacola Blue Wahoos minor league baseball team and the Pensacola Sports non-profit. Despite false blog reports, neither city council president Brian Spencer or councilman Larry B. Johnson are on the trip.

If Pensacola is selected, the most likely venue to host the basketball team would be the Pensacola Bay Center in downtown Pensacola, but it’s not clear whether the city is on the same page with Escambia County, which owns the arena. Hayward said Wednesday that he’s reached out to county officials as well as SMG, which manages the facility.

Hayward wrote county commissioners on May 31 to ask for their support.

“As we move forward in the proposal process, I would like to ask for the support and cooperation of the Board of County Commissioners in obtaining the information sought by the Pelicans organization,” Hayward wrote to commission chairman Doug Underhill.

Hayward said that while he spoke to County Administrator Jack Brown on Wednesday morning, no one from the county accepted his invitation to join him in New Orleans.

“I’m going over there to try to sell Pensacola,” Hayward said. “Where’s the help from the county, from SMG, from anybody?”

Underhill said Wednesday that he couldn’t join Hayward as he is currently in Huntsville, Ala. attending the National Cyber Summit.

Pensacola Mayor Ashton Hayward, right, with Escambia County Commissioner Doug Underhill in 2014. (City of Pensacola/Special to The Pulse)

“I told [Hayward] that I personally was supportive of having a conversation on his pursuit, but that the County will not be paying anything to make it happen,” Underhill said. “I also told him that the future of the Bay Center is bleak at best.”

County officials have recently discussed the future of the Bay Center, which was built in 1985 and requires an annual subsidy of around $2 million from the County budget. Area tourism officials have proposed replacing the Bay Center with a new multi-use sports, event, and conference center, but it’s unclear how the $80-100 million project would be funded.

Founded in 2001, the NBA D-League currently features 22 teams with direct affiliations to NBA teams. The league will rebrand as the G-League next season as the result of a sponsorship deal with Gatorade. The Pelicans in March announced their intention to field a team for the 2018-2019 season.

D-League seasons run from November to April and include 50 regular season games plus a postseason. Almost 40 percent of current NBA players have D-League experience, with NBA officials calling the league “a proven developer of NBA-caliber talent.”

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