NFL should move to keep Saints in New Orleans

Gameday

Nfl Week 8

October 31, 2005|By RICK MAESE

BATON ROUGE, LA. — Baton Rouge, La.-- --It was billed as a home game for the New Orleans Saints. The end zones, though, were painted purple and yellow. Many of the fans wore the colors of LSU, Tiger Stadium's regular tenant. Even as the sun set last night and the third quarter came to a close, the horizon looked like a purple ribbon wrapped around a birthday present.

The LSU band played the whole time. I wish they were taking requests. How does that song start?

We are trav'ling in the footsteps

Of those who've gone before

The 2005 remix, of course, would have a different title. The Saints are no longer marching in. They appear to be marching on.

Yesterday, before the Saints' first game of the season in Louisiana, NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue met with state government leaders and community leaders here. He tried to speak with confidence, but it's what he didn't say that has become cause for growing concern. Though fans throughout the region are starved for good news, Tagliabue offers few assurances that the Saints have a long future in New Orleans.

Despite the passionate efforts of many, the Saints appear closer to leaving than they are to staying. The Saints moved their operations to San Antonio after Hurricane Katrina ravaged their home two months ago. The mayor of San Antonio has already volunteered his city as a permanent home.

The Saints last week fired their top business executive who was a vocal proponent of keeping the Saints in Louisiana. They've also tried to squirm out of a lease for the team's training facility, saying hurricane damage has rendered the facility unusable. State officials have toured the facility, though, and said it's OK.

Team owner Tom Benson, who has reportedly already emptied his New Orleans office, is simply lining up chess pieces. Some time later this month, expect the team to attempt to exercise a clause in its Superdome contract that allows the Saints to break their lease without paying an $81 million penalty.

The Saints are preparing to march on. What a public relations blunder this one is going to be. The NFL has told us continually over the past two months how important the Saints are to the Gulf Coast. They have been continually credited with helping the region heal.

No one was more excited to evacuate the area than Benson. To give you an idea of how he's regarded by some fans: An Associated Press report last week said there were abandoned refrigerators on the New Orleans streets. Written on one was, "Do not open. Benson inside," and on another, "Saints lie to their fans."

Someone should force Benson to visit Baltimore, where a long list of Colts fans can explain just how important a team can be to a community.

The entire Gulf Coast is an area where anxiety and loss connects neighbors. Tagliabue has said little to ease their concerns. The league is financially capable of subsidizing the Saints. It's capable of assisting in fixing the Superdome. It's capable of saying that no matter what Benson does, the NFL will make certain there's an NFL team playing in New Orleans.

A strong statement would certainly reinforce the NFL's image as a compassionate, charitable league.

"I'm not big into images," Tagliabue said yesterday. "I'm into reality."

And he knows better than most that the city of New Orleans isn't looking like the most feasible option. Obstacles are everywhere.

Even before the storm, it was one of the NFL's smallest markets, an area that lacks big-time corporate dollars.

And what exactly would the Saints be returning to? It's great that FEMA and the Red Cross are working to repair the area, but they can't do much to make a football team financially viable.

"Governments don't buy tickets to football games," Tagliabue noted. "People do."

Optimistic estimates suggest 250,000 people could be living in New Orleans soon and the figure could be back near 460,000 in three years. But I imagine many people will want to spend their money on fixing their homes, not football tickets.

You sense that Tagliabue wants to say something strong, that he wants to reassure everyone and issue a promise. But all the NFL can do now is mull its options.

Maybe the Saints will play most of their games in Baton Rouge next season. Maybe they'll be called the Louisiana Saints. Maybe they'll be back in the Superdome by next November.

Maybe.

But Tagliabue deals with reality. The biggest battle the Saints face this season isn't on a football field. Benson doesn't seem to have much interest in an NFL team in New Orleans. The league does.

Before last season, the Saints posted 36 consecutive sellouts at the Superdome. The fans showed up even when Benson put only a mediocre team in front of them.

They're devout, they're loyal, they care - qualities Benson knows little about.

Hopefully, the NFL will make sacrifices to recognize its bigger responsibility, even if one of its owners won't.

rick.maese@baltsun.com

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