'My plan right now is to stay in New Orleans'
Saints owner dismisses his attorney's San Antonio talk
Wednesday, May 25, 2005
By Jeff Duncan
WASHINGTON, D.C. -- In his first public comments since a report that he is interested in selling or moving his football team, New Orleans Saints owner Tom Benson said Tuesday he wants to keep the team in New Orleans and eventually turn it over to his granddaughter.
"My plan right now is to stay in New Orleans and let my granddaughter take this club over," Benson said of Rita Benson LeBlanc, who is in her third year as an executive with the club. "That's what she wants to do, and that's what I'd like to see done. . . . I don't want to leave New Orleans. And the people don't want us to leave New Orleans, at least the majority of them."
The statements from the typically media-shy Benson, who is attending the National Football League's annual spring meetings in Washington, were his first public comments since April 27, when he broke off negotiations with state officials on a new agreement. The remarks also served as his public response to comments by his attorney, Stanley Rosenberg, who two weeks ago told the San Antonio Express-News that Benson is "interested in relocating the franchise, possibly to San Antonio."
Benson said simply, "Lawyers sometimes talk too much. I'm not looking at any markets."
Benson's comments should ease concerns, at least temporarily, from a fragile-minded fan base that the franchise plans to abandon the city it has called home since the Saints' inception in 1967. But though Benson reiterated his commitment to remain in New Orleans, he brought up what he sees as an unanswered question: a renovation of the Superdome versus a new, state-of-the-art NFL stadium in the city.
Benson has long expressed his desire for a new home for the Saints. His comments Tuesday shined a light on what may still be a major sticking point in negotiations with state officials, whose proposals have focused on a $174 million renovation of the Superdome to produce more revenue for the team.
Benson said he does not support the renovation because he said it doesn't solve the stadium issue long-term. Pouring millions into the third-oldest stadium in the NFL is a "halfway job" that's "not going to resolve anything," Benson said.
"You've got to look at the new stadiums," he said. "You've got to compete. We can't have our club with players that belong in the Arena League playing against the (New York) Jets or New England or Dallas or somebody else. We've got to compete with them."
Though Benson said he recognizes the current New Orleans economy isn't strong enough to support a new stadium, he said he's optimistic that by the end of the team's current agreement with the state in 2010, the economy will have recovered enough to finance one.
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."
Benson confirmed that his attorney, Rosenberg, has received an offer of more than $1 billion to buy the club. He would not elaborate on when the offer was made or from whom.
"I'm sure there are a lot of offers out there from people that want to buy clubs these days," Benson said. "I'm not going to sell the club. My granddaughter is working hard, and she's going to be involved in this club for a long time. I'm not interested in selling the club."
If the Saints do not take the exit clause after this season, the team's current agreement with the state is set to run through the 2010 season, although the state has a one-time, 30-day exit clause after the 2007 season.
Benson said too much has been made of his decision to call off negotiations on a new deal -- the team has a lease that runs six more seasons.
"I don't know what there is to talk about," Benson said. "We've got some problems, but I'm not going to get into that until after the season. I told the governor that that's the best thing, because I think we're going to have a good football team. With that in mind, our guys are working real hard, players, coaches and front-office people, everybody.
"Let's build on a good season right now, and then after the season we'll sit down. It's going to take a lot of hard work on everybody's part to get it done."
Gov. Kathleen Blanco has said she wants to renegotiate the state's annual inducement payments to the team, which increase to $23.5 million annually for the final three years of the current deal, as well as strike a new deal to keep the Saints in New Orleans for the next 15 to 20 years.
The current deal, which was struck under the administration of Gov. Mike Foster, relied on revenue streams that have fallen short of original estimates, causing the state to divert money from other sources to make the annual payments.
'We didn't start this'
Benson said he feels the Saints have been unfairly portrayed in negotiations, even though the team is honoring the contract and the state wants to alter it.
"You can't do a deal and then say, 'Oh, wait a minute, we want to renegotiate,' " Benson said. "That's not good business. I don't know how to do business like that. We didn't start this. They were the ones. We made this deal with the idea that there would be a committee study how we could build a new stadium. The legislators approved this. It wasn't the governor. All those guys up there around the state approved it.
"The whole idea was you'd have time to develop into something by 2010, you'd have a set program that was set into motion, not what we've got today, whether I'm a bad guy or a good guy or whatever."
Superdome Commission President Tim Coulon said he is encouraged that Benson said he doesn't plan to move the team but would like to see him restart talks in the coming weeks.
"I'm glad to hear that he's committed to the city, even though the Saints' previous actions didn't indicate that," said Coulon, the state's chief negotiator. "If he's truly committed to the city, he will reconsider the state's offer and negotiate a deal, sooner rather than later."
Coulon said he was surprised by Benson's renewed interest in a new stadium.
"In light of the full evaluation that was done (by the state-commissioned Barrett Sports Group), we thought that the new stadium was off the table," Coulon said. "It's clear that while it has never been off the Saints' table, it hasn't seemed to generate any interest locally from business or civic leaders."
Though encouraged that Benson is open to continuing negotiations, Coulon said delaying talks until after the season is not in the best interests of the state or the Saints.
"That means that a Final Four and a Super Bowl (bid) will all be delayed until we get an extended deal," Coulon said. "It would behoove the Saints to get together with the governor and if nothing else communicate with each other and see if they can work something out."
Benson said he feels he's being portrayed as the "bad guy" in negotiations with the state and called the attacks "personal."
"They are the ones that started talking about breaking the contract, not us," Benson said of state officials. "Never once did I say that we were going to leave or break a contract, and I'm not going to say that now.
"You can't have people hanging me and our club all the time and saying all the things that have been said about us, which have been untrue, and expect us to be nice."
Shaky N.O. economy
That said, Benson said he is concerned about the economy of the New Orleans market and is worried that it might not recover.
He noted that season-ticket sales are "terrible" for the upcoming season. As of last week, the Saints had sold less than 26,000 season tickets, a renewal rate of less than 50 percent from last season.
"We've got a lot of people that watch television and maybe can't afford to buy tickets," Benson said. "I think the New Orleans economy has a lot of problems; whether that's one, two or six teams, I don't know. It's just not prospering like Washington, D.C., is."
Benson attributed the tepid ticket sales to poor market conditions rather than the contentious negotiations with the state, the team's failure to make the playoffs for the past four seasons or the club's decision in January to raise ticket prices by $10 a seat.
"I don't think this has anything to do with it," Benson said. "I think our economy is the problem."
When asked the solution, Benson said, "The business community and the people of Louisiana have to work hard to get some industry and some business into our state that is going to support more than just the Saints, but will support a lot of things."
Benson sees a new stadium as an attractive part of an economic revival in New Orleans. The Superdome opened in 1975; the 32-team NFL has seen 18 stadiums built or undergo major renovations since 1992, with new stadium plans under consideration in New York, Dallas and Indianapolis.
"Thirty years ago when they built the Superdome, it was outstanding at that time. It was the pride of the country," Benson said. "Today it's not. . . . We're antiquated. When anything gets old and you get a lot of gray hair, nobody wants you anymore."
When a reporter noted that Benson was married last fall at age 77, he said with a smile, "Yeah, well, I was very lucky."