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Halo 09-22-2002 04:25 PM

Baton Rouge doesn't get it, Article from the Advocate
Let the Saints pay own way

The same week that the Hubble Space Telescope discovered a new kind of black hole in the universe, Gov. Mike Foster's NFL Stadium Advisory Committee heard a proposal that could create a $300 million fiscal hole in the state's budget.
Foster formed the 52-member committee in July 2001 after New Orleans Saints football team owner Tom Benson threatened to shop his franchise to a city outside Louisiana. Benson suggested he would move the Saints unless the state helped him significantly increase his revenue in New Orleans, a move known in many quarters as a kind of ransom.

Benson complained he could not remain competitive in the National Football League under his existing profit margins and suggested the best way to increase team revenue was to have the state subsidize construction of a new $450 million football stadium.

The Foster administration bought some time by putting together an incentive package that will pay Benson $186.5 million from state revenue sources if the owner keeps the team in New Orleans 10 years. Most of the money comes from a tax on New Orleans area hotels and motels. Under the agreement between the Saints and the state, Benson can leave the Crescent City after the 2005 season by paying the state $81 million.

Foster's stadium committee was charged with exploring a wider palette of options than simply building a new football stadium -- including renovating the Saints' existing home in the Superdome or letting Benson figure out how to finance a new stadium himself. The committee's final recommendation is due in June 2004.

In the meantime, the committee this week received a proposal drawn up by the Minneapolis consulting firm Ellerbe Becket for a $300 million overhaul of the Superdome. The plan would reduce the facility's maximum capacity from 72,000 to 67,700, but it would increase the number of suites, club seats and concessions -- resulting in $12.6 million more per year in revenue. All that money would go to Benson.

Of course, merely increasing franchise revenue does not guarantee owners will put their profits back into the team. That point was well argued by New York Yankee owner George Steinbrenner in the recent Major League Baseball dispute between players and owners.

Likewise, Benson might decide to take the extra money the state is funneling into his pocket and spend it on a new yacht or vacation home. Even if he wishes to make his team more competitive, giving Benson more money does not ensure he will spend it wisely.

Consider Benson's perplexing personnel change earlier this year when he suddenly fired General Manager Randy Mueller for personal reasons.

The Saints have shown some great competitiveness so far this season, and much of the credit for the composition of this year's team must go to Mueller.

The stadium committee has a narrow focus: exploring options for the Saints' future home. We hope state officials will keep the option on the table of letting Benson finance capital improvements himself.


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