Finney nails it
If Gov. Blanco learned anything the past few months, it is this: When you're negotiating with Tom Benson, you're dealing with a moving target. The state and the Saints went into these talks with the understanding the Saints had accepted the idea they could live with a renovated Superdome, renovated to the tune of $174 million. All of a sudden, Benson is terminating negotiations until after the 2005 season. Then he's saying a new stadium is the only long-term answer. So it's a new ball game.Now that's telling it like it is.
Then, Finney's column specifically identifies the holes in Benson's pathetic PR campaign. Included is another truly valid point: Why does Benson contend the Saints need a new stadium - which would result in increased ticket prices - while acknowleding that fans in economically-challenged Louisiana should support the Saints because of the low admission?
Finally, Finney hits Benson in the only place where it might hurt him - his ego.
If Benson does in fact relocate or sell the team, he will be selling out the same fans that once lavished him as the team's savior in the 1980's. It would also be in spite of the tremendous amount of Benson wind in recent years (read: since that ONE playoff win in 2000) about wanting to keep the Saints in New Orleans, and how he wouldn't accept $5 billion if someone offered it to him for the team, etc.
In short, as Finney so adeptly points out, Benson's legacy would be secured as the biggest a-hole in Louisiana sports history. He would be viewed as the rich guy who tried to squeeze every single penny from a cash-strapped state, while lying to fans' and politicians' faces about his true intentions, and then riding off into the sunset with a billion dollars in his pocket and a few million broken hearts in New Orleans.
If that is Benson's end goal, he sure is doing a poor job of hiding it. Having said that, if he really does want to keep the team here, he's doing a far worse hatchet job in mangling the situation.
For the record, here's a timeline of how I see things shaking out:
Early summer 2005 - Louisiana scrimps and pinches from various segments of its budget to pay the Saints the $15 million due under the present contract. The state then attempts to get talks going again with Benson, who again flatly refuses further negotiation until after the season, "when the Saints win the Super Bowl."
September 2005 - The Saints' home season opener sees attendance in the 45,000 range, resulting in a regional blackout and Benson angrily addressing the media about New Orleans not being an NFL-caliber city, and about the deal with the state being insufficient. Louisiana officials counter with comments that they attempted renegotiations unsuccessfully because Benson refused to talk. State polls show citizens are absolutely sick of the controversy.
November 2005 - The Saints are eliminated from playoff contention, and their typical struggle coupled with the off-the-field dramatics help lead to franchise-low attendance figures.
January 2006 - Benson and the NFL announce that Benson is utilizing his exit clause in the contract with Louisiana, and selling the team to investors from Los Angeles for $1 billion. Benson and family leave the New Orleans area and move to San Antonio. The automobile dealership formerly under Benson's name in New Orleans closes. The new investors from Los Angeles secure approval from the NFL, and the team gets ready to play in the Coliseum while a new stadium site is being prepared.
Spring 2006 - Benson, Robert Irsay, Bud Adams, and Art Modell start their weekly foursome on the golf course.
Summer 2006 - The Houston Texans season ticket waiting list has 50,000 names added.
February 2007 - The Los Angeles Saints win the Super Bowl. (Okay, that would just be too cruel...)
Yes, friends, I think Benson is playing Saints fans and state politicians like a Bourbon Street blues guitar. The more he ratchets up his rhetoric about the state being unsupportive, about New Orleans not being an NFL city (in spite of its hosting a record 9 Super Bowls), and about the fans not stepping up to "prove" their allegiance to him and his team by buying tickets (to watch a traditional loser at an arena he himself has labeled unsatisfactory), the better he feels he sets himself up to lay the blame at the state's feet for his selling the Saints.
As Finney notes, Benson has an opportunity to rise above the fray, step up to the plate, and ensure his legacy in Louisiana and the NFL. In Finney's words, "The future of the Saints is all in his hands...It's (his) legacy." Benson could be grouped with the Robert Krafts and Jerry Richardsons, or forever linked with the likes of Irsay, Adams, and Modell. It's his decision.
And if he's already made up his mind, for crying out loud, let's hear it now.
(Oh, that's right. I forgot - there's less than 26,000 season tickets sold...)