Keeping the Saints

Posted in Sports

Nobody can predict what sort of city New Orleans will be when things return to ostensible normalcy. But it’s reasonable to imagine that two major industries — tourism and oil — will take big hits. Median income will likely decrease. Population will decrease, of course. None of these events would bode well for our pro sports teams.

I’m not suggesting that Saints owner Tom Benson is running a non‐profit feel‐good operation whose only goal is to improve the city’s morale. (By that standard it’s been a failure for most of its existence.) A football team is a business. He’s putting up the cash, so he has no obligation to smile and pretend everything’s OK while the team steadily sinks into financial ruin.

At the same time, though, he has a financial incentive not to be perceived as the most heartless bastard since the Grinch. If he were to jump ship at any time in the next few seasons, it’d be the worst PR nightmare the NFL has ever faced, so naturally the league has incentive to keep the Saints in New Orleans.

Before the hurricane, Benson and Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco were in the middle of negotiations to restructure the deal the Saints made with the state several years ago. The deal involves annual payments from the state to the team, payments that escalate year after year. The payments were to be financed by the New Orleans hotel/motel tax, which for years had been a ridiculously successful tax that had financed the renovation of the Dome and the construction of the adjacent New Orleans Arena, home of the NBA’s New Orleans Hornets. But New Orleans has seen fewer tourists since 9/11 — resulting in revenues far lower than expected from the tax. Blanco said the state couldn’t afford the deal any longer.

Naturally, Louisiana certainly can’t afford it now. So something has to be done. Everyone involved in this dilemma has an incentive to keep the Saints where they are. So here’s what needs to happen, in my mind:

  • Tom Benson makes a formal pledge that he’ll remain in New Orleans until at least 2010, when the existing deal terminates. He’ll also waive the annual payments the state would make to the team.
  • The NFL pledges to Benson that they’ll weight league revenue sharing in a way that keeps the Saints fiscally solvent for the next six seasons. (The NFL has the power to block any team move, of course.)
  • The state, recognizing the economic value of keeping the Saints in New Orleans, agrees to do their best to accommodate the Saints while the Superdome is not available. This would include cooperation from LSU to allow the Saints to play at Tiger Stadium for one or two seasons — and arranging LSU’s football schedule to reduce logistical conflicts between the two teams.
  • The NFL also foots half the bill for either (a) a near‐total renovation of the Superdome, preserving only the structure, or (b) a new stadium in its place. The federal government foots the other half of the bill. Option A will be an easier sell to Congress, since an indoor stadium is more versatile — concerts, gun shows, baseball, soccer, what‐have‐you. But either way this wouldn’t be a wasteful project — a first‐class sports facility is critical for the New Orleans economy. The Sugar Bowl. The Bayou Classic. The occasional Super Bowl. The occasional Final Four. In a city driven by tourism, the economic value of sporting events cannot be understated. If the federal government is aiming to make New Orleans a city that can support itself once again, it can’t ignore this area of commerce. When the new stadium is done, ownership will reside with the state, just as the Superdome is owned by the state.