Saints Owner Ponders Team's Future
Wednesday, May 25, 2005; 2:51 PM
New Orleans Saints owner Tom Benson stood in a corridor of the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in downtown Washington on Tuesday, answering questions from one wave of reporters after another during a break in the NFL owners' meetings. The more he talked, the more it became clear that he was not going to allow himself to be pinned down about the future of his franchise.
He said, over and over, that he intends to keep the Saints in New Orleans and eventually have his granddaughter, part-owner Rita Benson LeBlanc, run the team. But he also said, over and over, that he was not ruling out moving the club or selling it to buyers who would move it, and he will consider all his options after the upcoming season.
The bottom line, it seemed, was that Benson was doing his best to position himself to emerge as a big winner no matter what happens. He can keep the Saints in New Orleans if the team can get a new stadium. Or he can exercise an exit clause in the club's lease with the Louisiana Superdome and move the team, perhaps to the vacant Los Angeles market that the NFL so covets. Or he can sell the club, perhaps for the $1 billion that he said he already has been offered.
In the meantime, though, things could get ugly, as the Saints prepare for what could be a lame-duck season in New Orleans with only about 25,000 season tickets sold.
"There has been a lot of talk about a lot of clubs [moving]," Benson said. "I think our economy is the reason there are so few tickets sold. I said we weren't going to move. I said we'd not do anything until after the season. I wouldn't consider it if they offered $6 billion. I don't want to leave New Orleans and I don't think the people want us to leave New Orleans, the majority of them."
The Saints have broken off lease negotiations with the state. The team will have a 90-day window following the 2005 season to decide whether it wants to leave New Orleans, and Benson's attorney recently was quoted as saying that Benson is interested in possibly moving the franchise to Los Angeles, San Antonio or Albuquerque. The Saints would have to reimburse the state $81 million in subsidies to leave, under the terms of their lease.
"I would consider everything," Benson said. "A lot of people have tried to contact us. We've got a written offer of $1 billion. But my goal is [to keep the team in New Orleans]. We need to work out a reasonable situation."
A reasonable situation, Benson said, involves a new stadium, not a renovated Superdome. "You've got to look at a new stadium," he said. "You've got to compete."
But he also said: "My club is in New Orleans. All I'm worried about in New Orleans is having a good season and making the Super Bowl. I'm not going to sell the club. My granddaughter is working in the organization. . . . My plan is to stay in New Orleans and have my granddaughter take over the club."
The Saints are, as usual, coming off a season in which they were underachievers, finishing with a record of 8-8 to miss the playoffs for a fourth straight season under Coach Jim Haslett. The club is 32-32 in those four seasons since going 10-6 and reaching the playoffs in 2000, Haslett's first season. Haslett, however, saved his job when the team reeled off a four-game winning streak to close last season and nearly made the playoffs.
The Saints dangled defensive end Darren Howard, their still-unsigned franchise player, in trade discussions this offseason, but haven't parted with him. They made a couple significant free-agent additions by signing Philadelphia Eagles guard Jermane Mayberry and Tampa Bay Buccaneers safety Dwight Smith. They signed tailback Antowain Smith as a free agent to back up Deuce McAllister, and they locked up wide receiver Joe Horn with a six-year, $42 million contract extension. They further bolstered the offensive line by selecting Oklahoma tackle Jammal Brown in the first round of last month's draft, and got one of the most intriguing players available when they chose former Florida State quarterback Adrian McPherson in the fifth round.
But they don't seem to have done enough to catch the Atlanta Falcons in the NFC South, and they will have a tough time staying ahead of the Carolina Panthers. Under Haslett, the Saints have perfected the art of doing just enough right to be tantalizing, and just enough wrong to be failures. But Benson was undeterred when he talked Tuesday about the timetable by which he would determine the future of the franchise.