Tuesday, October 18, 2005

The war of the Saints

Well, it's turned ugly. No pretense of civility anymore. NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue, who couldn't find time to attend the first two Saints games in San Antonio or the third one scheduled for December, is going to be in Baton Rouge for the first Saints game there. A game to which only 30,000 or so tickets have been sold for an 80,000-seat stadium. And Tagliabue has said the Saints will play all of their home games there next season, without consulting the Saints. I'm sure there were disparaging comments made about San Antonio in there, somewhere.

New Orleans won't be a viable home to pro sports for at least another year, if not more. Playing in Baton Rouge, the Saints would be a distant second to the LSU Tigers. Suspicious observers might conclude this supposed "support" for New Orleans and Louisiana is merely an attempt to make Saints owner Tom Benson lose so much money that he'd have no choice but to sell the team to outside interests--who would coincidentally move it to Los Angeles.

So the brawl has moved from the back room onto the main stage. San Antonio mayor Phil Hardberger is fed up with Tagliabue. Enough so that Hardberger has announced his intentions to make San Antonio the Saints' permanent home, and is pursuing state money out of Austin to make it happen:
State Sen. Jeff Wentworth, R-San Antonio, said Monday he is exploring use of the Texas Enterprise Fund to help build a Saints relocation war chest. Of the $182 million appropriated this year for the fund, about $146 million remains available through 2007.

"That's the first logical place to look," Wentworth said.

"That fund was created to help (businesses) make decisions to come to Texas as opposed to somewhere else. In my judgment, the Saints coming here would create jobs and spark economic development."

Wentworth said he has asked Gov. Rick Perry, who, with the lieutenant governor and speaker of the House, must unanimously approve each disbursement, to consider using development funds as part of a financial incentives package to entice the Saints to stay in San Antonio.

This, apparently, isn't happening without Benson's involvement, or at least approval:
Meanwhile, in a move that could signal the Saints' intentions, team owner Tom Benson on Monday fired his chief administrator, Arnold Fielkow.

Fielkow, who was in his sixth year with the organization and a member of the team's board of directors, was known to be a strong supporter of the Saints returning to New Orleans as soon as the city's Superdome facility, damaged during Hurricane Katrina, is repaired or replaced.

Last month, as the Saints were settling into new training quarters at the Alamodome, Fielkow warned Louisiana state officials that Benson was considering permanent relocation. Team sources said Fielkow was dismissed for opposing Benson's desire to explore relocation options.

Now, while I'm a proponent of San Antonio landing an NFL team, I've never been enamoured with snagging the Saints. For one, Benson reminds me far too much of the self-absorbed Bud Adams. And he's just not a very competent owner--despite traditionally rabid fan support, the Saints have managed to put together, what? five or six winning seasons over the past three decades? There's no reason to expect them to suddenly turn competent after a relocation. Dealing with Benson, who's used relocation threats as bargaining chips time and again, would be no picnic.

On the other side of the equation, though, are compelling reasons why the Saints should move. There is no useable stadium there, and it could be months before its determined if the Superdome is even salvageable. The New Orleans economy, struggling even before the hurricane, is shattered right now and could take a decade to recover. Contracts in place have force majeur clauses in them that are forcing the Saints to make a binding decision sooner, rather than later. And the State of Louisiana seems to want it both ways: Because of the destruction of the Superdome and the loss of home games, they are saying the contract between the state and the team is void, and Louisiana is only obligated to pay $3.3 million of the annual $15 million subsidy designed to keep the team in New Orleans. At the same time, however, the state has said that because Tiger Stadium is available in Baton Rouge, the contracts remains in full effect. Now, you might question (as do I) the wisdom of government bodies subsidizing professional sports, or of financial priorities when half of Louisiana is a wasteland in need of rebuilding with tens of thousands of people still homeless and without jobs. But either the contracts are in effect, or they aren't. You can't have it both ways.

As sad as this is, I'm convinced that New Orleans won't be a viable home for professional sports (other than perhaps minor league baseball) for a decade, if then. Corporations are moving out of the area, not in. Tourism revenue is down to zero. The port and petrochemical industry can't restore the city on their own. Even the NBA's Hornets are planning on a multi-year stay in Oklahoma City. Think about it: Oklahoma City has become more desireable place to be than New Orleans.

The Saints are gone, and the only roadblock is that Tagliabue wants them gone to LA, not SA. So this is my solution. Admittedly, it's not perfect, and nobody will like it, much less implement it. But when has that stopped me before? Formally, and permanently relocate the Saints to San Antonio, only leave all rights to the name, logo and colors with the city of New Orleans, as was done with the Cleveland Browns when Art Modell picked up and moved to Baltimore. Then, five years or 10 years or however many years it takes for New Orleans to recover, award the city an expansion franchise, along with Los Angeles. I may be an optimist, but I think 10 years should be enough time for even LA to come up with an ownership group and stadium plan that's viable. In all seriousness, the NFL has to expand by two teams, otherwise whenever the LA expansion comes to fruition, the league will have an odd number of teams, which will wreak havoc on scheduling, off week or no. It's the only logical solution.

Unless, of course, Tagliabue already has a team penciled in for relocation. Hmm.

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