It's Not Tommy's Fault...Just Ask and He'll Tell You
Benson: Saints' fate lies with community
New stadium would keep N.O. viable NFL city, he says
Friday, May 27, 2005
By Mike Triplett
"Just six months ago, he said he would be happy with a renovated Dome. ... We walked down that path together and realized that there was very little community support for a new stadium."
Superdome Commission president
Saints owner Tom Benson said Thursday that the future of his franchise's relationship with the state is "not my decision to make," instead challenging the New Orleans community with a pointed question:
"Are we an NFL community or are we not an NFL community?"
Speaking with the media at length for the second time in three days, Benson shifted the onus of a new long-term deal with the state away from just himself and state officials.
Benson reiterated that he wants to keep the Saints in New Orleans, but he said the community needs to step up and prove that it has the means and the desire to continue supporting an NFL franchise.
"It's going to take the backing of everybody in the community, not just Tom Benson by himself. He can't do it by himself. The state can't do it. Tom Benson and the state together can't do it," Benson said following a ribbon-cutting ceremony at the Shirley Landry Benson PACE Center in the Ninth Ward. "It's going to take the businesses and the community to say, 'We want an NFL team, and whatever it takes, that's what we're going to do.' "
At issue for Benson are the team's sagging season-ticket sales and the community's lack of support for a new stadium. Speaking for nearly 15 minutes Thursday, Benson discussed those topics, as well as his frustrations with a series of what he called "short-term" agreements with the state over the years.
When asked if the Saints would stay or go, Benson responded, "I think it's the people's decision to make, not mine."
"Can we afford it?" Benson continued, growing more animated. "Can we afford it, you know? Ticket sales aren't very good right now, and the biggest complaint that we have is that our prices are too high. And we've got one of the lowest prices in the league. What do we do? Should we give our tickets away? I mean, who's going to pay the freight?
"That is what we have to decide as a community, not me. I want to stay."
Superdome Commission president Tim Coulon, the state's chief negotiator in its dealings with the Saints, said he agrees with Benson that the community needs to show its support for the team. But he believes the community has done exactly that, "year after year."
"There's no doubt in my mind that this is an NFL city," Coulon said. "Look at the track record in attendance over the years."
The Saints sold more than 50,000 season tickets in each of the past two seasons, but as of last week the team had sold fewer than 26,000 and had more than 40 suites available. Coulon said he doesn't believe the economy has changed that much in one year, so he believes other factors are at play.
For one, the Saints raised ticket prices for the first time in four years by $10 per ticket in all eight seat locations, bringing them to the middle of the pack in the NFL with an average ticket price of $62.
Coulon said the uncertainty about the future of the Saints could also be a factor.
However, Benson has come out strongly this week insisting that he has no desire to leave New Orleans -- refuting comments from two weeks ago by his attorney, Stanley Rosenberg, who told the San Antonio Express-News that Benson was "interested in relocating the franchise, possibly to San Antonio."
Benson told the national media at the NFL owners' meetings in Washington, D.C., on Tuesday that he plans to stay in New Orleans and eventually pass on the team to his granddaughter, Rita Benson LeBlanc, who attended the ribbon-cutting ceremony.
It was during the media session in Washington that Benson also surprised state officials by saying he does not support a $174 million renovation of the Superdome, the league's third-oldest stadium, as a feasible alternative to building a stadium.
Benson reiterated that opinion Thursday.
"Nobody's been able to show me that the Dome will be able to be renovated to compete with all of these stadiums that are out there today and the ones that are coming out, the new one in Arizona, Dallas, Indianapolis," said Benson, who also pointed out that New Orleans wasn't in the running for the 2009 Super Bowl, which was awarded to Tampa, Fla., on Wednesday.
When asked if it was his desire to begin construction on a stadium before the team's current lease agreement expires in 2010, Benson said, "Oh, we better have it done before 2010. My goodness, we'll be so far behind by then that it would be impossible to ever catch up."
Coulon said he was under the impression that Benson and the state agreed a renovation of the Superdome was the best long-term course of action after looking into the issue late last year. Coulon said negotiations between the Saints and the state had centered on such a renovation.
"Just six months ago, he said he would be happy with a renovated Dome," Coulon said. "I'm not surprised that he wants a new stadium, but we walked down that path together and realized that there was very little community support for a new stadium."
Benson said in November that the state had "three choices: We can build a new stadium, extend and enhance our current agreement, or tell us to leave."
But Thursday, Benson said a renovation of the Dome is "a very short-term solution, and I don't think we're looking for that. We're not looking for that. Nobody in the community is looking for that."
"We've been on a short-term lease," Benson continued. "That's been our problem, you see? I've gone from Governor Edwards to Governor Foster to Governor Blanco and we keep doing this every couple of years. This is no way to operate. It's disturbing to the community and disturbing to me.
"We've got to set a plan to be in the NFL. And we've all got to chip in and work hard and make sure that we can do it."
The team's current agreement with the state, which was made during Gov. Mike Foster's tenure, is scheduled to run through 2010. But Gov. Kathleen Blanco asked the team to renegotiate because the state has struggled to make its annual inducement payments, which are scheduled to reach $23.5 million in each of the final three years of the deal.
Benson broke off negotiations April 27. There are six years remaining on the deal, but the Saints have a one-time exit clause following this season, and the state has a one-time exit clause after the 2007 season.
The most recent offer on the table from the state included $134 million of the proposed Superdome renovations, $267 million in guaranteed payments through the 2025 season and an estimated $336 million in new money from the renovations from 2007 to 2025.
Coulon said whether Benson wants to continue working on that package or go back and explore the possibility of a new stadium, "The two principles need to get together."
"My side is quite simple," Coulon said. "We left the negotiating table with a solid offer on the table that included a long-term deal, a renovated Dome, continued cash inducements. We understood that the two principles would get together if there was a need for further discussions. A press release was issued that they wanted to put off talks until after the season and go about their business. Then two weeks later a story appeared, a statement was made that they wanted to go to San Antonio. That was a mistake, and now they're staying home again. Hopefully, there won't be any more talk about relocating."
Benson downplayed NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue's interest in contacting both he and Blanco in the near future to check in on the negotiations. Benson said Tagliabue has maintained an interest throughout the process and just wants to stay updated, rather than serve as a moderator.
When asked if he would re-open negotiations if Tagliabue asked him to, Benson stood firm.
"It's going to be very difficult for us to talk (with the state) until after the season," Benson said. "And I hope that's after the Super Bowl. That's what we're shooting for."
Although the Saints have not made the playoffs in the past four years, Benson said they have been on the cusp of success, just one or two victories away.
Benson said he is doing everything he can do to maintain an "NFL-caliber franchise," pointing to the money and upkeep that has been put into the team's practice facility and contracts such as receiver Joe Horn's recent $42 million deal.
"I'm doing everything I can. I'm spending money like it's going out of style, on players and everything," Benson said. "And what we do charitably in this community is unbelievable. ... Hey, the Saints are a tremendous asset to this community."
This is what I would like to see, and it should make both sides happy: build a new stadium. But build it only with the agreement that the cash inducements stop. Build it with the agreement that if you get this Mr. Benson, it is your duty to raise revenue for your team and keep their books at a level with the rest of the NFL. It is your duty to do this by putting a winning product on the field, and thus drawing more fans to your new arena, more merchandise sales, licensing, etc. etc. And with NFL owners seemingly more in line with a revenue sharing deal, with the exception of a couple of the big money guys, you should have no problem getting every dime you think you have coming. So since you blind sided us with this demand for a new stadium after negotiating for a renovation of the Dome in bad faith, we'll blind side you with this. We'll build you a new stadium, but cash inducements for the team stop now. All that money will go into the new stadium. Because after all Mr. Benson, why the hell would you propose your own dome and new orleans centre renovation, with a tailgate area, and a Saints field somewhere in the east if renovation was not viable for you. So we will build it for you Mr. Benson, but we will not give you one more dime once we agree. You will earn what you produce.
...silly Saintswhodi, common sense is for kids...
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