saints (n.) - NFL franchise presently based in New Orleans; boondoggle (n.) - an unnecessary or wasteful project or activity; saintsdoggle (n.) - the Saints' potential relocation situation in New Orleans, and the resulting boondoggle by Louisiana to keep the team from leaving

Friday, June 24, 2005

A Benson history lesson

Having seen and heard so many "a deal's a deal" arguments out there, I looked into some more specific information on the history of Tom Benson's dealings with the state of Louisiana. I also found some interesting information on the nature of the Saints' present arrangement with the state, in context with the remaining 31 NFL teams.

According to a May 1, 2005, Shreveport Times article by Glenn Guilbeau entitled "Saints play Louisiana Fear Factor," Benson has at various times during his ownership sought to alter agreements with Louisiana. Three years after Benson bought the Saints in 1985, with a stadium deal through 2006, Benson attempted to renegotiate the deal with then-governor Buddy Roemer, and was rejected. Then, in 1992, when the Saints led the NFL in net revenue, Benson threatened to move the team unless he got an improved stadium deal and practice facility. Two years later, a new lease was granted, dramatically improving Benson's game-day earnings. Then, in 1999, Benson again attempted a lease renegotiation, and was unsuccessful. But after a tremendous increase in complaining just weeks after the Saints' lone playoff win in 2000, the present agreement was entered into with then-governor Mike Foster in 2001 (which is detailed in part below).

Another story has chronicled the Benson dealings history. Jeff Duncan of the New Orleans Times-Picayune, in a June 3, 2004, story entitled "Gamesmanship," reported that lease concessions from the state were made when Benson bought the team in 1985, and provided details on the 1994 renegotiation:
"The 1994 renegotiation helped the Saints' profit margin by capping the team's rent at $800,000 a year until the lease expires in 2018, increasing his take of game-day concession sales to 42 percent, up from 35 percent, and eliminating his in-stadium game-day expenses. The deal kept in place revenue streams flowing to the team, such as 100 percent of game-day parking, 100 percent of Superdome tours year-round, 100 percent of annual box suite revenue, and 100 percent of game-day Superdome advertising."
As for the present deal that has caused such a headache in Louisiana, the aforementioned Shreveport Times article reports that the arrangement is one-of-a-kind.

According to the article, Dan Barrett of the Barrett Sports Group that helps finance NFL and MLB stadiums is quoted as saying that "no other team gets direct payments" like the Saints do, especially in addition to the fact that Louisiana pays "all dome operating expenses," totaling over $15 million a year.

The Shreveport Times story also mentioned that its parent company, Gannett, polled all 32 NFL teams, and found that each one (except for the Saints) has financial relationships with their city or county, not their state. And though some NFL franchises have received public funds, those were incentive-based and usually one-time payments or loans, unlike the Saints' annual non-incentive-based payments.

And the Shreveport Times noted the state of the current agreement, as follows:
"Louisiana has already paid $42.5 million and owes roughly $140 million in all through 2010 with the next installment of $15 million due in July. Blanco had to borrow more than $7 million from a state economic development fund to make last summer's payment and estimates the state is $9 million short at the moment for the next payment."
The deal also included a $15.2 million indoor practice facility that opened in 2003, which was fully-funded by the state. And according to the same article, experts have called the unprecedented deal the best in the NFL.

So what's the point of all this? When Benson has wanted more profits for his team, the state has overlooked contracts with the Saints, renegotiated, and bailed him out. Now that the shoe is on the other foot, however, and in spite of all his talk about wanting to keep the team in New Orleans, Benson is more than happy to continue to rake Louisiana and its citizens over the coals with a uniquely bum deal that tremendously favors him.

The Times-Picayune article noted above quotes the state's lead negotiator with the Saints, Tim Coulon, as follows:
"We've heard over and over again, a deal's a deal a deal. But in 2001, apparently the state had a deal with the Saints, but the Saints said it wasn't good enough because the climate had changed in the NFL. The state stepped up, changed the deal. Now, the climate's different for the state. What we asked them do was restructure. We didn't want to take away all their cash inducements. We wanted them to bear what I call the word they don't like to use -- the big 'R' word -- and that is a percentage of RISK on the part of the Saints. They have to bear some of the burden. So I would hope that cooler heads would prevail and we'd go forward if there was an opportunity for continued discussions. Apparently, the Saints have chosen not to."
And that, my friends, is my biggest gripe with Benson. It's not just that he's utterly incompetent when it comes to public relations, or that he has ripped his own team's fans for low 2005 season ticket sales after they have given him years of sellouts to support subpar teams he himself has labeled "high school" quality. (Well, those go along with this.) It's that he seems to possess an uncanny ability to overlook everything that has been done for him, by past state officials and fans alike, and remain completely oblivious to anything but his own pocketbook.

One person left a comment to this site that says that the Saints situation is all about business, and fan loyalty means absolutely nothing. But you can't have one without the other, even though it is clear that professional sports is a business. Darn profitable one at that. And I don't dispute that fact at all.

But maybe there's something to that. Maybe Benson knows now that he will opt out of the current agreement after 2005, sell the team, bank a billion bucks, and move to San Antonio permanently. Maybe he's got a buyer in place already. Maybe he just has to toe the line for a few more months, then get out forever, a billionaire off of an initial $70-something million investment.

Just business. And an amazing deal for Benson, Saints fans be damned.

So far, he's done nothing whatsoever to dissuade me from believing otherwise.

(And, contrary to some beliefs, I do wish he would give me reason to think differently.)