Are the Saints willing to ride out the storm in New Orleans in the devastating aftermath of Hurricane Katrina?
PFW has learned Saints owner Tom Benson has contemplated permanently moving the team to San Antonio, where he has business interests. There have been rumblings about Benson's interest in San Antonio for some time, perhaps a product of the team's somewhat strained relationship with the state of Louisiana in recent years.
However, in the week leading up to the teamÃƒÂ¢Ã¢Â‚Â¬Ã¢Â„Â¢s opener at Carolina, the organization consistently pledged its support for Louisiana, its southern portion decimated by Katrina and its largest city having been ordered to be evacuated because of toxic floodwaters.
With the Louisiana Superdome, the SaintsÃƒÂ¢Ã¢Â‚Â¬Ã¢Â„Â¢ home stadium, heavily damaged in the storm and its aftermath, Benson publicly stated his wish for the Saints to play as many games as possible in Baton Rouge, La, home to Louisiana State University and 91,600-seat Tiger Stadium. The stadium, as well as other school athletic facilities, is being used in the stateÃƒÂ¢Ã¢Â‚Â¬Ã¢Â„Â¢s relief efforts, and thousands of evacuees have come to the city, so it was not feasible to have the team play all of its home games at that site.
However, the Saints will play four home contests in their home state. Their first Tiger Stadium game is Oct. 30 vs. the Dolphins. The others are Nov. 6 (vs. the Bears), Dec. 4 (vs. the Buccaneers) and Dec. 18 (vs. the Panthers).
The Saints will also play three home games at San AntonioÃƒÂ¢Ã¢Â‚Â¬Ã¢Â„Â¢s Alamodome, the facility built by the city in its failed attempt to bring an NFL team there in the 1990s. The Saints will host the Bills on Oct. 2, the Falcons on Oct. 16 and the Lions on Dec. 24.
The SaintsÃƒÂ¢Ã¢Â‚Â¬Ã¢Â„Â¢ first ÃƒÂ¢Ã¢Â‚Â¬Ã…Â“homeÃƒÂ¢Ã¢Â‚Â¬? game is Monday, Sept. 19, vs. the Giants at the Meadowlands, as part of a ÃƒÂ¢Ã¢Â‚Â¬Ã…Â“Monday Night FootballÃƒÂ¢Ã¢Â‚Â¬? doubleheader. It was the first New Orleans game rescheduled in the aftermath of the hurricane. The NFL will hold a telethon for Hurricane Katrina relief efforts during the telecast of the contest.
The Saints have long been thought to be a candidate to relocate, given BensonÃƒÂ¢Ã¢Â‚Â¬Ã¢Â„Â¢s unhappiness with the Superdome. Benson was able to strike a lucrative deal with then-Gov. Mike Foster in 2001, guaranteeing the team $186.5 million in state funds over a 10-year period. The pact, as Benson said in 2002, was the ÃƒÂ¢Ã¢Â‚Â¬Ã…Â“next step forward in assuring that the Saints remain in New Orleans and Louisiana for the foreseeable future.ÃƒÂ¢Ã¢Â‚Â¬?
But discussions about a new stadium have stalled in recent years, and the state has had to borrow money to make its last two payments to the team. The Saints are owed $15 million at the end of this season.
Talks between Benson and Gov. Kathleen Blanco to renegotiate the deal broke off in April. As recently as Aug. 26, three days before Katrina made landfall, Blanco was quoted in The (New Orleans) Times-Picayune as expressing hope the team and state could rework the contract.
The Saints reportedly can pay $81 million to get out of the deal with the state at the end of the season. Benson would then be free to move his club, though he would need approval from three-fourths of the leagueÃƒÂ¢Ã¢Â‚Â¬Ã¢Â„Â¢s owners.
For now, the SaintsÃƒÂ¢Ã¢Â‚Â¬Ã¢Â„Â¢ focus is on San Antonio, their adopted home. And they would appreciate it if the NFL would also recognize this as their new postal address. Contrary to some public statements by club officials, our sources indicated that the Saints would have preferred to play their final seven ÃƒÂ¢Ã¢Â‚Â¬Ã…Â“homeÃƒÂ¢Ã¢Â‚Â¬? games in San Antonio so they wouldnÃƒÂ¢Ã¢Â‚Â¬Ã¢Â„Â¢t have to travel each week like they will this Monday when they face the Giants. San Antonio officials were also in favor of that plan. However, the NFL wanted to get as many games as possible scheduled at LSUÃƒÂ¢Ã¢Â‚Â¬Ã¢Â„Â¢s Tiger Stadium. NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue made the final decision, dividing the games between San Antonio and Baton Rouge.
Team observers have said the Saints were frustrated because they had little influence on deciding the teamÃƒÂ¢Ã¢Â‚Â¬Ã¢Â„Â¢s ÃƒÂ¢Ã¢Â‚Â¬Ã…Â“homeÃƒÂ¢Ã¢Â‚Â¬? stadium for this season. The Saints have been training in the Lone Star State since Sept. 2, the day after their preseason finale in Oakland. They moved their entire operation there, including team offices, training facilities, families and support staff.
While the Saints have all the necessary support systems in place, they havenÃƒÂ¢Ã¢Â‚Â¬Ã¢Â„Â¢t yet found a central location to house everything. Their locker room is at the Alamodome. Their practice fields are located at a high school athletics complex. Their team meetings are held at the convention center. And everyone is living out of hotel rooms at the Marriott. TheyÃƒÂ¢Ã¢Â‚Â¬Ã¢Â„Â¢ve even had to lift weights at a GoldÃƒÂ¢Ã¢Â‚Â¬Ã¢Â„Â¢s Gym alongside local San Antonio residents. The Saints have to be bused to this hodgepodge of sites.
We hear that Saints players have tried to deal with all the busing around and the hotel accommodations by treating it like itÃƒÂ¢Ã¢Â‚Â¬Ã¢Â„Â¢s an extended training camp. But team observers donÃƒÂ¢Ã¢Â‚Â¬Ã¢Â„Â¢t know how long the Saints can keep this training-camp mindset going.
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