Go marching out?
By Josh Peter, Yahoo! Sports
September 25, 2006
NEW ORLEANS Crazy Jimmy. John in Galliano. Stacey in Houma.
One after the other, they called by the dozens, lighting up the switchboard at "The Big 870 WWL" during the radio station's morning drive-time show. It seemed like all of south Louisiana wanted no, demanded to talk about their New Orleans Saints.
After all, the Saints staged a comeback victory over Green Bay a day earlier to open the season with back-to-back road victories for the first time in franchise history. The team's success has galvanized this city as its football team prepared for Monday night's game against Atlanta to mark the official reopening of the Superdome.
Echoing a sentiment sweeping across the area ravaged by Hurricane Katrina a year ago, Stacey from Houma said, "I feel like a kid the week before Christmas."
Well, Saints fans, meet The Grinch.
His name is Dean Bonham, and he's a sports business expert who has studied the New Orleans market, one of the NFL's smallest and poorest.
"This is a very, very difficult market to begin with because of its size and lack of corporate presence, and you've just added a significant impediment in the form of Hurricane Katrina," Bonham said. "By no means should anyone think the reopening of the dome and the NFL support of the market means the Saints are going to have an easy go of it. It's going to be a long, rocky go of it."
Or it could be a short, rocky go of it. Saints owner Tom Benson said he intends to honor the team's current stadium lease with the state through the 2010 season, but only five days after Katrina slammed into the city and tore holes in the roof of the Superdome, word leaked that Benson was trying to move the Saints to San Antonio for good. Benson's approval rating ran neck-and-neck with that of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), but damage had not only been done to the team's home and stadium but to its value as well.
"That franchise sitting in Los Angeles is worth $1 billion," Bonham said of the Saints' potential worth as a Southern California resident. "That franchise sitting in Virginia, Oregon, San Antonio or some other market that is interested in trying to get an NFL team is worth $600 to $675 million. That franchise sitting in New Orleans is worth something less than that. Who knows how much, but certainly something less."
Bonham isn't the only one who thinks the new shiny roof on the Superdome may be a temporary cover for issues that could undermine the franchise's future in New Orleans. Recently departed NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue has said the Saints' ability to achieve long-term success in New Orleans is "still an open question."
But if the situation is fourth-and-long, New Orleans is going for it.
The bulk of the $184 million set aside to renovate the Superdome has been spent not only in an attempt to restore the building but to transform it from a symbol of despair to one of hope. Crazy Jimmy and the other talk-show callers are among the legions that see the Saints as a catalyst and Monday night's game as a chance to bolster the city's energy and make the town inviting for tourists still haunted by images of a storm that left 80 percent of the city under water. Yet the realities of the slow rebuilding process are unmistakable.
On one side of the Superdome, blown-out windows from the New Orleans Centre stare back, and the three-story mall that was damaged during the storm remains closed. A Holiday Inn three blocks away serves as headquarters for 300 soldiers, called back to the city after a murder spree in early June. Only half of New Orleans' restaurants have reopened because there are only half as many mouths to feed with the population at 50 percent of its pre-Katrina level of about 500,000.
Some horrified by the suffering and depravity that took place inside the Superdome during Katrina wanted the building demolished. But the estimated cost of building a new stadium was $600 million. Salvaging the Superdome was the obvious option.
FEMA contributed $115 toward repairs and required the state to pitch in $13 million. The governmental agency that oversees the Superdome refinanced a bond package that raised another $41 million, and the NFL provided a $15 million grant.
There's been no howl of protest calling for the money to be spent on basic services. In fact, there's hardly a peep of opposition. Maybe that's best explained by C.B. Forgotston, a political watchdog who closely tracks the use of public funds in Louisiana funds such as those now being used to rebuild the Superdome.
"If Katrina hadn't happened, I would have been raising hell," Forgotston said. "And I could show you in dollars and cents why it doesn't make sense. But we have to accept things as they are. It's a psychological boost that's needed."
Benson believes the selling of every season ticket for the first time in the team's 40-year history speaks volumes about New Orleans and Saints fans across the Gulf South. Said Benson: "This is their way of saying, We're here. We're alive. We're not sitting back on our butts. We're alive.' "
Benson admitted "it's been a little disappointing" to have only a handful of the Superdome's 137 luxury boxes remain unsold, but he's staying positive.
"Let's take it one day at a time and not worry about anything else, because this is too exciting," Benson said. "This is the first step."
If Benson sounds cautiously optimistic, it's understandable. Bonham, the sports business expert, predicts the Saints will survive in New Orleans only with federal and state support neither of which is guaranteed. And some fear the remarkable support that led to the record-setting season ticket sales could be short-lived.
"I'm concerned that there's going to be a period where the initial outpouring of support is diminished," Bonham said. "I think that's likely to be more of an issue in the next three to five years than today, when there's more emotion attached to wanting to get New Orleans back on its feet."
Forgotston, the political watchdog, and Marie Knutson, the former booster club president, are among those who think many fans used money from insurance settlements or from FEMA to pay for season tickets. It's the same source of money cited for soaring profits at Harrah's casino downtown, and money that could disappear by next year. Furthermore, the Saints stress the need for support from the local business community, yet it's unclear what the business community will look like in the coming years.
Then there's the threat of another deadly Hurricane, of which Forgotston said, "If we have another storm like Katrina, even if the Saints win the Super Bowl, that's not going to keep everybody here."
So, in truth, the future of the Saints is as cloudy as the future of the city.
Josh Peter is a writer for Yahoo! Sports. Send Josh a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated on Monday, Sep 25, 2006 1:17 pm ED
This city badly needs somethin to bring it back to what it once was. So much not bein done. I only wish I could go down there to help.