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

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

NFL deja vu? Stunning parallels between Benson, ex-Seahawks owner Behring

With all the hoopla surrounding this Saints circus these past few weeks, it may be telling to review the NFL’s most similar encounter with this relocation scenario.

While an enormous disclaimer must be made for the fact that no city before now has been seriously impacted by a natural disaster like Katrina, it is important to keep in mind that the NFL is on record as wanting to give New Orleans a reasonable chance to prove it can sustain support for the Saints during rebuilding.

With that being said, the closest resemblance to Tom Benson’s current San Antonio courtship occurred in 1996, when then-Seattle Seahawks owner Ken Behring badly wanted to move his club to a recently-vacated Los Angeles.

A quick initial comparison of Benson and Behring reveals that both made their pre-NFL fortunes selling cars (Benson in Texas and Louisiana, and Behring in Wisconsin). And both had businesses in their desired relocation locales, with Behring being a California real estate developer and Benson having car dealerships in San Antonio.

But the parallels only begin there. (Normal text for Behring, italics for Benson)

Behring, you see, was desparate to get out of his Kingdome lease with Seattle’s King County. At the time, the lease, ironically enough, was set to run through 2005. Behring wanted no part of the Kingdome because he deemed it as an inadequate facility, and he and his attorney concocted an argument that the lease was invalid because the Kingdome was not built to withstand earthquakes.

This argument was presented at an NFL owners meeting, where, according to an article by Paul Attner in the March 25, 1996 edition of Sporting News, owners had to hide their laughter.

This, of course, is not unlike reports that Saints’ employees had to cover their mouths when Benson told them not to return to New Orleans because it is unlivable and that FEMA and the National Guard still occupied the damaged Saints training facility in Metairie.

And, with the Superdome scheduled to have renovations and upgrades completed by Nov. 1, 2006, the stadium clearly would be adequate to support NFL football.

But Behring’s ludicrous contention was all the more humorous, given that his solution to his alleged earthquake fears in Seattle was to move his franchise to Los Angeles of all places.

As things continued to fall apart, Behring, who had promised fans otherwise, issued a press release on Feb. 2, 1996, stating that the Seahawks were leaving Seattle permanently. He then hastily loaded up the team’s workout equipment into moving trucks, and shipped it to Anaheim.

The Seahawks’ equipment was shipped from an abandoned but perfectly fine training facility in Seattle, to an old elementary school in Anaheim. Behring also shut down his Seattle offices in early February 1996, and employees with nowhere else to go had to work from home. Then-head coach Dennis Erickson had no office either.

The obvious present-day Benson comparison to that situation is the Saints’ abandoned training facility and team offices in Metairie. The players are training and practicing in a parking lot under tents, and dress out in a high school baseball field locker room. The coaches have no offices, except for an abandoned water works building in San Antonio.

Like Benson now, Behring had no firm plans in place for such a move.

In the above-cited Sporting News article, Attner wrote: “But, as long as Behring is owner, plans are to conduct the draft from Anaheim and then hold training camp in southern California. Where? Don't ask for specifics, please, because there are none. So much of this is being done on a fly-by-night basis, which is a heck of a way to run a franchise valued conservatively at $180 million.”

So, no specifics existed for Behring’s hasty move to L.A., and none exist for Benson either. See the above comments about the Sants’ present conditions. Benson also is running his Saints on a fly-by-night basis, which, using Attner’s words, is a heck of a way to run a franchise valued conservatively at $700 million.

At least Behring promised to leave the Seahawks’ name, logo, and colors with Seattle for use of a future franchise.

For his actions, Behring was sued by the Washington Attorney General for a litany of reasons including antitrust and unfair trade practices. The suit, which can be read here, is a virtual copy-and-paste of arguments that could be made by Louisiana against Benson. Some language from the suit appears below:
“In contrast to the discipline, teamwork and spirit of fair competition displayed on the football field, the Seattle Seahawks' current owners, through a variety of unfair methods of competition and monopolistic practices, are attempting to take unfair advantage of the state and its citizens by moving the Seattle Seahawks to southern California. They have also engaged in deceptive tactics in the sale of tickets and have deprived the state of the benefits of the contract executed between SSI and King County.”

“Fans make decisions to purchase tickets not just because games are played in Seattle on Sundays, but because the team is the 'home team' for the Pacific Northwest. The community closely identifies with the Seattle Seahawks and the Seattle Seahawks have established themselves as partners with the community. This is exemplified by a letter from David Behring to the season ticketholders in 1995 which claims:

"'[T]hank you for your continued support of the Seattle Seahawks. We are highly optimistic about our future. The Pacific Northwest is a fantastic community that we are proud to be a part of, we think your spirit and dedication will be the envy of the entire league. As always, we are committed to winning both on the field and in the community. Public service is a high priority and we will do our best to brighten the lives of those around us.'"
Quotes on the situation at the time were made by King County executive Gary Locke, who told AP sportswriter Jim Cour in this Feb. 3, 1996 article, "One has to seriously question whether Mr. Behring was ever serious about staying in Seattle.”

Senator Slade Gorton, R-Wash., also told Cour, "It's totally outrageous. Two weeks ago Behring was in my office assuring me the team was staying in Seattle. It is as plain as all get out that he (Behring) planned this all along, and it has nothing to do with the Kingdome."

These same types of comments should be expected from Louisiana politicians such as Kathleen Blanco, David Vitter, and Ken Hollis, all of whom have been reassured by Benson that his intentions are to keep the Saints in Louisiana.

Shortly after the suit was filed, Behring countered with his own suit that alleged King County was in violation of the Kingdome lease for failing to correct the aforementioned earthquake deficiencies.

No doubt, such an action is brewing in Benson’s legal quarters.

In 1996, a judge, citing a specific performance clause, prevented Behring from moving the Seahawks. The lease still had 10 years remaining, and Behring was locked into the contract.

Behring, who did not apply for relocation, also drew the ire of the NFL, which neither approved nor supported such a move. As an aside, the league’s owners (Behring included) had entered into a signed agreement that they would jointly determine what to do about relocating a team to Los Angeles.

In the present Saints situation, Benson has entered into a signed agreement with Louisiana wherein he extends his lease cancellation date to 2007, and gives the NFL the express authority to determine where the Saints will play their 2006 schedule.

In fact, the NFL was so upset that commissioner Paul Tagliabue informed Behring that he would be fined $500,000 if the Seahawks continued to practice in Anaheim, for “conduct detrimental to the league.” Tagliabue’s threat came with a firm order to return the Seahawks to Seattle.

Tagliabue also said at the time, "It is incoherent to destroy what it took 75 years to build. We want to maintain continuity and tradition."

As for the Saints today, it would be outstanding to hear Tagliabue come out and publicly reprimand Benson with a comment like, “It is incoherent to destroy what it took 39 years to build. We want to maintain continuity and tradition in helping to rebuild New Orleans.”

And undoubtedly, Benson's activities have been nothing less than "conduct detrimental to the league." They've been detrimental to his own image and legacy as well. He should be fining himself.

Behring’s response to the litigation and to Tagliabue came in a press release, quoted in this March 22, 1996 AP article: “Rather than enduring the costs and distractions of litigating with the National Football League at this time, I have chosen to ask our players and conditioning coaches to return to our facility in Kirkland for the rest of the offseason condition program.”

While Behring tucked his tail between his legs and humbly returned to Seattle, the citizens and politicians there sought new prospective owners. They found one in Microsoft co-creator Paul Allen, who also owned the Portland Trailblazers at the time.

Citizens and politicians in Louisiana have sought out and found two groups of prospective buyers. One group is headed by Terry Bradshaw and James Davison, and the other is led by Dickie Blossman.

Behring had also vowed, according to the above-cited Attner article, that he would never sell the Seahawks. The reasoning behind Behring’s change of heart, wrote Attner: “But being treated the fool is not a pleasant experience. If your peers aren't looking at you seriously, what's the sense of staying in the club?”

Benson, meanwhile, has also said he will never sell the Saints. But the longer this ridiculous charade continues, the less respect his NFL counterparts will have of him. News that the ownership committee overseeing him and the New Orleans situation will vote unanimously to keep the team in New Orleans is evidence of that.

Amidst public disdain and lack of peer respect among NFL owners, Behring entered into an agreement with Allen to purchase the Seahawks in 1997, with the lynchpin being a new stadium proposal put to voters.

The proposal passed, the sale went through, the stadium was constructed with taxpayer funds and $100 million of Allen’s own money, and nine years later, the Seahawks are the top team in the NFC.

As for re-establishing trust and faith with Seahawks fans throughout the Northeast, Seahawks President Bob Whitsett told the Seattle Post-Intelligencer in a Dec. 16, 1999 article: "We didn't have to do a lot of market research and wonder if Seattle and the whole Northwest would support an NFL team. We knew they would if the team did things like they were supposed to do. They didn't burn all the bridges up there with the previous ownership, they blew all the bridges up. I think people wanted them to be rebuilt, but just because Paul bought the team didn't mean that people were automatically coming back.”

This would definitely be the case in southeast Louisiana and on the Gulf Coast, as Benson has “blown up all his bridges” there as well. But after investing so much emotional capital into the Saints, people in Louisiana do want the bridges to be rebuilt.

So, in a very basic conclusion, here is a short rundown of final comparisons between Behring and Benson:

Behring - wanted to move from Seattle to L.A. because of earthquake threat to Kingdome
Benson - wants to move from New Orleans to San Antonio because of “unlivable” conditions of New Orleans

Behring - had no facilities to move into for upcoming Seahawks campaign in L.A.
Benson - has no facilities to move into for upcoming Saints campaign in San Antonio

Behring - team trained in Anaheim until ordered back by NFL
Benson - wants team to train in San Antonio, NFL threatening to order them back to New Orleans

As always, we shall see what direction this roller coaster will take.


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