New Orleans Saints officials met with their advertising firm
Sunday, June 12, 2005
By Jeff Duncan
When New Orleans Saints officials met with their advertising firm to brainstorm ideas for the club's 2005 ad campaign, they focused on a well-known angle: the team's loyal fan base.
The debut commercial walks fans through Saints history, starting in 1967. A die-hard fan proudly adheres a bumper sticker to his car: "The Saints Come Marching In." As the seasons pass, the commercial shows the aging fan as he dutifully replaces the old sticker with new ones, depicting slogans from Saints history: "Sock it to 'em Saints," "Faith, Hope and Bum," "Cha-Ching," and "Bless You Boys."
The final sticker brandishes the club's 2005 slogan: "Faith."
Long recognized across the National Football League for their devotion and passion, New Orleans fans have remained loyal despite a mostly woeful history on the field. In 38 seasons, the team has won its division only twice and has one playoff victory.
Still, Saints fans have endured.
But their loyalty was questioned last month when team owner Tom Benson, citing sagging season ticket sales, challenged fans to support the Saints. "Are we an NFL community or are we not an NFL community?" Benson said.
Measuring fan loyalty is difficult and perhaps can only truly be gauged when a team is losing. Building fan support is much easier, for example, in places such as Pittsburgh, where the Steelers have won four Super Bowls and played in the AFC championship game the past two seasons, or even in small-market Green Bay, where the Packers own three Super Bowl wins and have 13 consecutive winning seasons.
What about the New Orleans Saints, who, since joining the league in 1967, have lost more games than any NFL team? Whose fans have best supported a team without a winning tradition?
By that standard, Saints fans are No. 1 in the NFL, according to an analysis by The Times-Picayune.
Based on statistics from 1967 through 2004, the Saints lead the NFL in average fans per win, a ranking that considers a team's on-field performance and its attendance history. The rankings do not include the expansion Houston Texans, whose three seasons are not enough to be statistically significant.
The Saints lead the NFL with an average of 76,088 fans per win, derived by dividing the team's all-time attendance of 17,880,875 by its 235 total wins. Cleveland is second at 75,721 fans per win. Detroit is third. None of those teams has ever reached a Super Bowl, but Cleveland and Detroit have played in conference championship games.
"The loyalty of Saints fans over the years is one of the great stories in sports," Arnold Fielkow, the Saints' executive vice president of administration, said in an April statement. He acknowledged the club's advertising campaign as the "the legacy of our great fans."
Saints officials declined to comment for this story.
While there is no accepted methodology to measure fan loyalty, the fans-per-win calculation supports a long-held premise that Saints fans in the football-crazy South rank among the most passionate in the league.
Consider these statistics, all measuring NFL teams since the Saints' inaugural season:
-- Even when victories are not calculated into attendance history, the Saints rank 10th in the league in overall regular-season attendance, with a total of 17,610,161, despite playing in the league's fifth-smallest market.
That figure ranks higher than several teams from much larger markets, all with more successful histories. Buffalo, at No. 6 with attendance of 18,288,741, is the only other small-market team in the top 10. The Bills also played in four consecutive Super Bowls.
-- The Saints' per-game attendance average of 60,935 ranks 13th, ahead of traditional powerhouses New England, Pittsburgh, Oakland, Minnesota, Green Bay, Washington and San Francisco. Those teams have combined for 35 Super Bowl appearances and 22 championships.
-- The Saints have enjoyed strong support despite posting one playoff win -- lowest in the league, excluding the expansion Texans -- as well as the second-worst regular-season winning percentage (.409) in the league. Only Tampa Bay, at .382, is worse, with a record of 172-279-1 in 29 seasons. But the Buccaneers did win the Super Bowl in 2003.
-- Measured against teams with similar losing histories -- Arizona, Atlanta and Tampa Bay -- the Saints are the clear attendance winners. Remarkably, New Orleans (234-339-5), Arizona (233-336-9) and Atlanta (234-339-5) have posted nearly identical records over the past 38 seasons, yet the Saints have outdrawn the Cardinals and Falcons by millions.
The Saints have improved considerably under owner Benson's 20-year watch (157-168, .483). In the 18 seasons before Benson took over, the club's winning percentage was .310 (77-171). All six of the team's playoff appearances, and its lone playoff victory, were under Benson.
The reputation of Saints fans has been known across the NFL since they first packed 80,985-seat Tulane Stadium in the late 1960s.
"They're recognized in the league as great fans and very energized and loud fans, which is what a football team wants," said Green Bay Packers Executive Vice President John Jones, a New Orleans native, former Times-Picayune reporter and Saints season-ticket holder. "The support just goes very, very deep. When the Saints came in 1967, I remember feeling like it was one of the biggest events in the history of the city.
"To me, football has always been a part of the culture of New Orleans. Whether the record on the field was a winning one or not, people were still there, living and dying with the team, spending their dollars in hope every week that this may be the week that gets us back on track."
That loyalty has led some to compare Saints fans to Chicago Cubs fans and Boston Red Sox fans, who have become legendary in Major League Baseball for their perseverance.
"That's a fair comparison," said Eddie Jones, an LSU graduate who recently retired as president of the Miami Dolphins and is moving to Abita Springs. "They're holding out hope. That's what brings a lot of them back. Everybody has the expectation that every next season is going to be the season."
Shooting holes in theory
The rankings are not meant to be conclusive. They inherently penalize winning teams, which is why longtime successful franchises such as Pittsburgh, Oakland and Minnesota rank at the bottom despite decades of solid fan support. The rankings also do not account for teams that historically have played in stadiums with smaller seating capacities. San Francisco and Green Bay, for example, played for decades in venues that held about 60,000 fans, small by NFL standards.
At the same time, successful teams have a major advantage in attracting fans, since casual sports fans tend to be drawn to winners. So factoring in that success, or lack of it, is one way to measure fan support among those NFL teams that have not been perennial winners.
"A good statistician will shoot holes in any model such as this," said Robert Baade, a professor of economics at Lake Forest College in Illinois who has done extensive research on the economic impact of stadiums and professional sports teams. "Attempting to illustrate fan support is commendable. Unfortunately, the reality is the NFL doesn't value it. You don't get points for being a good supporter. It's all about the money."
The bottom line
A product of the hardscrabble streets of New Orleans' 7th Ward, Benson understands the plight of many Saints fans. He also knows his NFL competitors won't sympathize if his team is not contributing its fair share under the league's revenue-sharing plan.
Benson consistently has said he wants to keep the Saints in New Orleans. At the same time, he said the sagging sales of season tickets and luxury suites have left him no option but to reconsider the Saints' future in the market.
Benson's most recent comments came only weeks after his attorney, Stanley Rosenberg, told a Texas newspaper that 77-year-old owner is "interested in relocating the franchise, possibly to San Antonio or Albuquerque."
The comments had the effect of an anchor on the club's already plunging ticket sales, which for each of the past two seasons topped 50,000. But a little more than three months before the Sept. 11 regular-season opener against Carolina, the Saints have sold only 27,500 season tickets and have 38 unsold luxury suites, Fielkow said.
"That's pretty hard to swallow," Benson said. "I mean, I understand that people don't have money, and I realize that, but I can't carry the burden personally."
Saints officials contend their fan support has been spottier than the track record indicates. They note the club's average attendance plummeted to a league-low 37,750 per game in 1996 and that its recent 36-game sellout streak was kept alive by several 11th-hour fire sales of tickets at discounted rates, often to the dismay of league officials.
Marc Ganis, president of SportsCorp. Ltd., a Chicago-based sports consulting firm that has worked closely with the Saints and other NFL teams on stadium-related issues, said the Saints have a legitimate point.
"The fact that fans are coming to games and in reasonable numbers is a vital factor," Ganis said. "Unfortunately, ticket buying is not the sole criterion in determining whether a community retains an NFL team. There also needs to be corporate and political support for a city to be a viable location for an NFL franchise in the 21st century."
At the NFL owners meetings last month in Washington, D.C., Benson attributed the Saints' 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.
Some season-ticket holders disagree.
Andrus Whitewing, 45, said he only recently renewed his season tickets "because the opportunity for upgrading my seats outweighed my angst over the semi-yearly relocation threat and the lack of progress being made in the negotiations."
"At least 90 percent of the people that I have talked to that have not renewed (season tickets) cite the ongoing threat of moving to be the main reason," said Whitewing, who moderates SaintsReport.com, a popular Saints fan Web site, from his home in Carencro. "We're all very tired of it. The ticket price increase rationale used by Benson is nonsense in my opinion. It may affect a few, but Saints fans are about as loyal as they come -- that is, as long as the Saints reciprocate in kind. The never-ending threat of relocation undermines that loyalty."
Are fans enough?
For Saints fans, the Cleveland Browns serve as a cautionary tale about the motives of profit-driven NFL franchises.
Nowadays, TV money isn't enough to support the escalating costs of running an NFL team. Neither are sellout crowds. Owners want new stadiums mainly due to their revenue-producing accouterments: luxury boxes, club seats, personal seat licenses, upscale restaurants and merchandise kiosks.
Browns fans discovered this the hard way.
One of the most successful franchises of the 1950s and 1960s under legendary coach Paul Brown, the Browns have enjoyed little success in the Super Bowl era. Along with the Saints, Cardinals and Lions, the Browns are one of just four NFL teams in existence since the '60s that haven't played in a Super Bowl.
Yet Browns fans' support never wavered. They packed 74,400-seat Municipal Stadium for years despite the stadium's decrepit condition and frigid location along the banks of Lake Erie. The team annually ranked among the league leaders in attendance.
Former Browns owner Art Modell betrayed that allegiance when he abruptly moved the club to Baltimore following the 1995 season after Cleveland residents refused to support his campaign for a new stadium.
The move outraged loyal Browns fans, who swamped the NFL offices with hate mail and letters of protest.
In response, the league made the unprecedented move of guaranteeing the city of Cleveland a new team with its original name and colors. In return, Cleveland residents passed a referendum to help finance a stadium.
The relaunched Browns opened play in 1999 and have played before mostly packed houses at 72,300-seat Cleveland Browns Stadium, even though they've produced just one winning season. Despite a 4-12 record last season, the Browns ranked fifth in the league in attendance, with an average crowd of 73,105.
"When Art Modell moved the Browns out of Cleveland to Baltimore, that represented to me a psychological watershed," said Baade, the economics professor. "It gave greater currency to teams to relocate.
"People will now ask, 'If the Browns can move out of Cleveland, why can't the Saints leave New Orleans?' It's a reasonable question considering how well fans have supported the team.
"It's all so disheartening. The NFL is going to go where the money is. Unfortunately, there is no such thing as fan loyalty in this game."
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Jeff Duncan can be reached at email@example.com or (504) 826-3405.
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