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

Sunday, May 29, 2005

Finney nails it

I was especially impressed with New Orleans Times-Picayune columnist Peter Finney's assessment of the present Saints situation in his column, "State needs some answers from Benson," this past Sunday, May 29. For starters, Finney points out in plain English that Benson is a PR-unsavvy hypocrite:

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...)

Friday, May 27, 2005

Benson comments deciphered

Tom Benson finds himself in quite a pickle. He has cut off talks with Louisiana to renegotiate the Saints' deal with the state, and has leaked to media (through his attorney) rumors about selling the team and/or relocating it to either San Antonio (not likely), Albuquerque (are you kidding?), or Los Angeles (NFL's stated target).

Now, in today's New Orleans Times-Picayune, he demands that the team's fans, the city, and the state all step up to the plate to prove that New Orleans is an "NFL community." He argues that keeping the Saints in New Orleans is "not my decision to make," and that the local businesses and community must do "whatever it takes" to keep the Saints in New Orleans. Benson said, "I think it's the people's decision to make, not mine."

This, of course, is all codespeak. It requires deciphering.

You see, the Saints currently are having problems selling season tickets. (You may pick your jaw up off the floor.) In fact, they've sold less than 26,000 thus far, which is a tremendous decline over past years (over 50,000 were sold in 2003 and 2004).

Couple the escalating relocation drama with the fact that ticket prices in the Superdome have been raised $10 per ticket, averaging $62 a pop - which is about average in the NFL - and, lo and behold, you've got less ticket sales than in previous years.

Which is why Benson is now placing the impetus on whether the Saints stay in New Orleans on the citizens and businesses of New Orleans and the rest of Louisiana. He's effectively telling everyone, 'Hey, if you want us to stay, you darn well better pack that Dome no matter what.'

It's also why he has peppered his recent comments to media with things like, "after we win the Super Bowl" and "we're going to have a heck of a team and a heck of a season." Translation: 'Not only must you true Saints fans pack into the Dome, but if you don't, you're going to miss the best season in Saints history. Or the last. Or both.'

Bottom line: it's all about the bottom line. It's nothing more than a pitch to increase slumping season ticket sales.

As such, Benson conveniently forgets that Saints fans have been some of the most committed, football-hungry fans in the NFL.

Benson also has come out against renovating the Superdome, upon which, at least in part, the deal with Louisiana was premised. Now, he demands a new stadium, and he says "we better have it done before 2010."

I don't believe the state will build a new football stadium in New Orleans anytime soon. I'm sure Benson and the NFL know that as well. And with the NFL focused on a future in Los Angeles that will include one or two relocated franchises...well, it seems like Benson is biding his time and positioning himself to place blame on Louisiana's politicians, businesses, and citizens when he does sell the Saints for a cool $1 billion. And I'm sure his granddaughter will be just fine with having that passed down to her.

Intriguing Saints links (updated 6/15/05)

Below are various links to stories involving the Saints and their potential relocation from New Orleans to points unknown (most likely Los Angeles). Excerpts from the more intriguing portions of the stories relative to the potential move are included.

Saints leaving is inevitable - Jon T. Stewart, Houma Courier, May 15, 2005 - "The writing’s on the wall and has been for years. We can ignore it all we want or dismiss it as irrational rants by pessimistic fans until we’re blue in the face. But sooner or later, it’s going to happen. It’s inevitable. The ugly truth is New Orleans will lose the Saints."

Saints on the march? - Charles Robinson, Yahoo! Sports, May 24, 2005 - "Though Benson said he wants to stay in New Orleans, he refused to guarantee that he would remain in the city at the end of the upcoming season, when he has a 90-day window to break his lease with the Superdome for an $81 million penalty. Asked if he would consider a move to Los Angeles at that time, Benson said, 'You consider everything.'...Perhaps no franchise has as clear a path to Los Angeles as the Saints, who are struggling through multiple issues heading into the upcoming season."

Into the great unknown - Don Banks,, May 4, 2005 - (On the NFL relocating a team to Los Angeles) "If it does go for the relocation option, the NFL doesn't want that team owned by someone who had little success in their previous market and has the imprint of failure. So if it is the Saints, Chargers, Colts, Vikings or even the Raiders who move to L.A. -- and that's thought to be the order of likelihood -- look for the league to orchestrate the sale of the team to the buyer of its choosing before the relocation takes place."

NFL takes wait-and-see stance on L.A. location - Sam Farmer, Los Angeles Times, May 25, 2005 - "Meanwhile, New Orleans Saint owner Tom Benson confirmed he has received more than one offer to buy the franchise — one from an L.A. group — but said he has no plans to sell the team. The Saints and Louisiana have broken off negotiations over the size of subsidies to keep the team in New Orleans. 'Our situation isn't good, everyone knows it, and it has to get better,' Benson said...The Saints and San Diego Chargers are the most likely relocation candidates, and the NFL has not ruled out the possibility of putting two teams in the L.A. area."

Benson needs to undo damage he has created - John DeShazier, New Orleans Times-Picayune, May 26, 2005 - "For two weeks Saints owner Tom Benson allowed the most loyal, unrewarded fan base in the NFL to marinate in the garbage that was dumped on its head by his friend/lawyer/spokesman, Stanley Rosenberg. For two weeks, after Rosenberg said Benson would be receptive to relocating the Saints to San Antonio, Benson clammed up and let the debate and conjecture rage. And then Tuesday, from the NFL owners meetings in Washington, D.C., he broke his silence, saying his plan 'right now' is to stay in New Orleans and that 'lawyers sometimes talk too much,' referring to his confidant, Rosenberg, who probably knows Benson -- and his business intentions -- better than anyone."

Benson's white steed is now PR nightmare - Jim Mashek, Sun-Herald, May 24, 2005 - "Benson has bungled the Saints' negotiations with Blanco at nearly every turn, but particularly on the public-relations front. It may be the one critical area of business he doesn't understand, or places little value on. Either way, it's working against him. The Saints' season-ticket sales for 2005 are hovering around the 26,000 mark, about half the club's total for the 2004 season. Part of that might be attributable to the Saints' recent track record of mediocrity. But a lingering sense of dread seems to surround this franchise, with the immediate future taking a back seat to whatever prospects await the team down the road."

Don't expect Saints to bolt for Texas in the near future - The Way We Hear It, Pro Football Weekly, May 23, 2005 - "The Saints can legally break their current lease, which runs through 2010, after the 2005 season by repaying the $81 million the team received from the state during the first four years of the deal, which was signed in 2001. Although San Antonio may be just a bargaining ploy, a more realistic option down the road could be the Los Angeles area, which is nearly guaranteed to get an NFL team by the end of the decade."

Get set to pay for Vikings seats - Charley Walters, St. Paul Pioneer Press, May 26, 2005 - "After capital gains taxes, (former Vikings owner Red) McCombs stands to profit on the sale of the Vikings by about $300 million. He owned the team for seven years. Despite denials, there is still speculation he could buy into pal Tom Benson's New Orleans Saints and try to move them to San Antonio, where he lives."

'My plan right now is to stay in New Orleans' - Jeff Duncan, New Orleans Times-Picayune, May 25, 2005 - "NFL officials have said they want to have a team in Los Angeles, the nation's second-largest market, by 2008 or 2009. The Saints' agreement with Louisiana, which allows the team a 90-day window to leave after the upcoming season by paying an $81 million exit penalty, has spawned widespread speculation that the New Orleans franchise is the one most likely to relocate to California. Such a move is not in his plans, nor is selling the team, Benson said. Even when asked by a Los Angeles reporter why the Saints wouldn't be the logical team to move to L.A., Benson shot back, 'Because I said that we weren't going to move, that's why.' But Benson also said he does not plan to resume negotiations with Louisiana officials until the season ends. 'I'm not going to do anything until February, after we win the Super Bowl,' he said. 'That's a good reason. You can do whatever you want with that. I'm not going to do anything until after the season is over. And I don't care if they offer me $6 billion.'

Saints season tickets lagging at 26,000 - Len Pasquarelli,, May 25, 2005 - "'I don't care if they offer me $6 billion,' said Benson, whose has made known his intentions to will the team to his granddaughter, Rita Benson LeBlanc, who currently is listed as executive/owner of the Saints. 'And I'm not going to do anything, to talk to anyone, until February, after we win the Super Bowl. I think we're going to have a heck of a team and a heck of a season. . . . So I'll just sit back and wait.' The fervent hope for Benson, of course, is that the Saints, a talented but underachieving bunch, finally reach their potential in 2005. That would provide him, he acknowledged, with plenty of leverage. Leverage in discussions with the state of Louisiana, or in a state of uncertainty. 'You always want to deal,' noted Benson, winking, 'from a position of strength.'"

Saints impasse needs new script - Peter Finney, New Orleans Times-Picayune, May 22, 2005 - "At the moment, what we have is an owner asking fans to buy tickets to a football home, the Superdome, the owner has trashed, even though it has hosted six Super Bowls, one as recently as 2002. Now, owing to more recent events, we have an owner asking his football public to support a team that his attorney said the owner wants to take bye-bye. All this with the preseason opener against the Seattle Seahawks less than three months away. Go figure."

L.A. could be in store for quite a Saintly presence - T.J. Simers, Los Angeles Times, May 13, 2005 - "The Saints remain the favorites — the first time they've been favorites in anything for a long time. They have a 90-day window to leave after the 2005 season, while paying an $81-million penalty, but if they don't go, the team must stay in New Orleans until 2010. Why would anyone want to stay in New Orleans for more than a weekend?"

Offseason Notebook: The Truth About Drew - Charles Robinson, Yahoo! Sports, May 12, 2005 - "You could have seen the plan of Saints owner Tom Benson coming a mile away last week, when he cut off negotiations with state officials over his stadium lease until after the 2005 season. Many in the NFL expected that to ramp up the 'Saints to Los Angeles' talk, and only a few days later, Benson's attorney said franchise relocation is something he would be interested in. Benson has a clause in his Superdome lease that would allow him to bolt after the 2005 season, and it seems like a realistic option with the NFL attempting to get a franchise into Los Angeles by the end of the decade. Even now, relocation seems almost certain in the L.A. scenario, since the league isn't likely to upset its current divisional balance of 32 teams by adding another franchise. Still, the Saints haven't applied for relocation, and it would be hard to imagine NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue supporting the move. As a city, New Orleans remains one of the most attractive locations for a franchise, even with the Superdome in its current dilapidated state. It's highly unlikely Benson would get the 24 votes required from the 32 NFL owners to approve relocation."

Mayor hopefuls want to see Saints march in - Tom Orsborn, San Antonio Express-News, May 11, 2005 - "Stanley Rosenberg, Benson's attorney and long-time friend, said Benson has a strong interest in moving the Saints out of New Orleans. Benson, Rosenberg said, is considering invoking an exit clause in his lease with the Louisiana Superdome after the 2005 season. Benson recently broke off negotiations for a longer lease agreement with state officials in Louisiana. 'Tom has a house in San Antonio, a ranch in San Antonio and business interests in San Antonio,' Rosenberg said. 'He likes San Antonio very much.' Rosenberg said he's received several offers from parties interested in either buying the Saints or in inducing Benson to move the team to another city. One offer was for more than $1 billion, Rosenberg said. 'Tom has many alternatives when it comes to the Saints and he has received many different offers, including one from Los Angeles,' Rosenberg said.

Saints unlikely to march out of town just yet - Jeff Duncan, New Orleans Times-Picayune, May 1, 2005 - "'Moving to L.A. is much more of a possibility than anybody in New Orleans would care to acknowledge,' said Marc Ganis, president of SportsCorp Ltd., a Chicago sports business consulting firm that works closely with the NFL...'The number of teams that have the legal right to move in the near future is down to two: New Orleans and Buffalo,' Ganis said. 'In a short number of years, it will be more than two. So if an owner were contemplating moving to Los Angeles, the timing to avoid a traffic jam on the 405 Freeway, so to speak, would be to do it sooner rather than later.'"

NFL Commissioner - N.O. Saints top relocation list - New Orleans CityBusiness, Dec. 2004 - "The New Orleans Saints have moved to the top of the list of National Football League franchises considered for relocation to Los Angeles following an agreement between the city of Indianapolis and the Colts on a new $500 million stadium, according to a Los Angeles Times report. The NFL has said it is determined to bring a team to Los Angeles through either expansion or relocation. NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue said the Saints situation doesn't look like it's any better today than it was a year ago. If anything, it looks worse."

NFL to look at two L.A.-area sites for stadium -, May 20, 2003 - "The NFL is so eager to get back into the Los Angeles area and is looking into the viability of a stadium in Carson, Calif...No team would play in Los Angeles before 2006."