Saints Owner Ponders Team's Future

By Mark Maske
Washington Post Staff Writer
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.

"After the Super Bowl -- after we win the Super Bowl -- then I'll think about it," Benson said.

Vikings Sale Approved

The owners today approved the sale of the Minnesota Vikings from Red McCombs to a group headed by New Jersey real estate developer Zygmunt Wilf.

Wilf said his group will pay $600 million for the team and he hopes to close the deal next month.

"We're very excited and we look forward to continuing to build a world-class franchise in Minnesota," Wilf said at a news conference.

Wilf originally was to be a minority investor in a group headed by Arizona businessman Reggie Fowler, who was vying to become the first black principal owner of an NFL franchise. But there were concerns about whether Fowler had the financial wherewithal to structure the deal to the NFL's satisfaction, and he gave way to Wilf as the group's lead owner. Fowler remains involved in the group but is to have a lesser ownership stake. Wilf declined to say today whether members of the group believed the deal would have been rejected by the league if Fowler had remained the lead investor.

"All I can say is our group reorganized ourselves to be in position to close, and hopefully that will take place sometime in June," Wilf said.

The league's stamp of approval became inevitable after Wilf was made the lead owner. Benson, the chairman of the league's finance committee, had said Tuesday that the committee was prepared to recommend to the full ownership body today that the deal be approved. The transaction needed to be ratified by at least 24 of the 32 owners.

"We have somebody that's capable of buying the club, financially and everything," Benson said Tuesday. "We've got a good owner there and a good group backing him up."

Tennessee Titans owner Bud Adams said Tuesday: "I was really impressed with the individuals. I think they have the wherewithal to do it. They have everything in place. We saw the balance sheets and they look pretty good."

Wilf already has begun the process of trying to get a new stadium built for the franchise. He said today that he would prefer an open-air stadium so that visiting teams would have to play in the same sort of harsh weather they face in Green Bay. Wilf said there is "no way" that he would move the franchise, pledging that the club will be in the Minneapolis area forever.

"I look forward to being part of the community," Wilf said. " ..... To me, this is not a matter of economics. It's a matter of passion."

Wilf said that he and family members have been in a partnership for New York Giants season tickets since the early 1960s and have had a suite at Giants Stadium since the early '80s. His father and his uncle, he said, passed up an opportunity to purchase the AFL's New York Titans in 1961.

Wilf said that members of his investment group were not given input into the Vikings' decision to trade wide receiver Randy Moss to the Oakland Raiders earlier in the offseason.

"It was a decision made by the previous ownership, so I would have no comment on it," Wilf said. . . . The owners hope to pick a stadium site for a future Los Angeles franchise by the fall. Three sites remain under consideration -- the Coliseum, the Rose Bowl in Pasadena and Anaheim, Calif. Officials in Carson, Calif., withdrew their 157-acre site from consideration Sunday.

"L.A. is a huge market," Denver Broncos owner Pat Bowlen said. "We've had success there before. I think we have to be in Los Angeles. . . . [But] first of all, I want to see a stadium. Once you see a stadium, then you can start worrying about whether it's an expansion team or a relocated team [that will play in Los Angeles] . . . . I'm not a strong proponent of expanding the National Football League. But I'm not going to worry about that until I see a stadium. We've been trying to do that as long as I can remember."

Said Benson: "I think it's moving forward pretty good. If we can keep doing what we're doing, the interest in L.A. is great. With that in mind, something will get done. It can be any of the . . . sites they mentioned. We're trying to determine how to work a club into L.A." . . . The owners voted, 27-5, Tuesday to approve a recommendation by the competition committee banning the "horse-collaring" tackling technique. A player who uses the tackling technique in the open field is to be assessed a 15-yard penalty and could be fined. The technique can be used legally at the line of scrimmage between the tackles and on the quarterback when he's in the pocket because in those instances, officials said, it often is used by defenders inadvertently.

The technique, in which a defender drags down an offensive player from behind by grabbing him around the neck or shoulders, came under scrutiny last season after Eagles wide receiver Terrell Owens suffered a severely sprained ankle when he was taken down in such a manner by Dallas Cowboys safety Roy Williams.

Competition committee members decided to ban the technique after watching tapes of several plays, several involving Williams. The Cowboys, not surprisingly, were among the teams to vote against the new rule Tuesday, along with the Saints, Detroit Lions, San Francisco 49ers and New England Patriots.

Said Rich McKay, the president and general manager of the Falcons who is the co-chairman of the competition committee: "You don't try to target one player. You try to target the future of the tactic. . . . I don't like that [the rule change being associated with Williams alone] because he's a good football player and he did absolutely nothing illegal. [But] as a committee, we're nervous about this tactic."

'09 Super Bowl To Tampa

The owners today awarded the 2009 Super Bowl to Tampa. It took four ballots, with Atlanta as the other finalist in a field that also included Houston and Miami. Atlanta and Houston had been regarded as the front-runners before today's presentations. ..... The Dolphins continue to pitch a proposal in which Miami would become a semi-permanent Super Bowl host, getting a game once every three years or so and building permanent facilities to make the event even more grandiose than it already is. . .

League attorney Frank Hawkins briefed members of the finance committee Tuesday on Buccaneers owner Malcolm Glazer's $1.47 billion takeover of Manchester United. The league instructed the Glazer family to provide more information about the British soccer team's relationship with a Las Vegas casino.

The team and the Las Vegas Sands Corp. reportedly are planning build a casino near Manchester United's Old Trafford stadium. A fans' group wrote a letter to NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue detailing that venture and other connections between Manchester United and gambling interests, including legal betting stalls in the team's stadium operated by English bookmaker Ladbrokes and a link to a betting Web site on the club's site.

A league spokesman said that the NFL has no cross-ownership or debt concerns about Glazer's takeover of Manchester United, which has generated ire among the team's fans. Pittsburgh Steelers owner Dan Rooney said he has concerns about Glazer's divided ownership loyalties.

"I'm in the football business," Rooney said. "I believe our principal support should be in the National Football League. The NFL is the greatest league there is, so what are you looking for? He's getting a lot of great publicity in Manchester. Is he going to give full-time to operating Tampa Bay? Am I concerned? Yes. It's the idea of the effort of the individual who runs the team."

Glazer did not speak to reporters Tuesday. His son Joel, a Buccaneers executive, declined to comment when asked about the matter.

"I didn't think he could get the job done, but he's a strong negotiator," Adams said. "Now he's got the number one soccer team in the world. I don't know anything about the casinos they're talking about, but he went after the number one team in the world and he got them. He's pulled off a lot of deals. He's a pretty smart guy and he plays it just right."

Said Bowlen: "I don't think it's affecting the NFL at all. I was just surprised to see that Malcolm is such a soccer fan. . . . We all have hostile times in our market when we're not winning. He's probably used to that."

The media-shy Glazer attended this afternoon's news conference announcing the Tampa Super Bowl but refused to answer questions from reporters about Manchester United, frustrating British journalists. After Glazer gushed about Tampa securing the Super Bowl because "it's such a wonderful community and wonderful weather," one reporter asked him as he left the room: "How would you compare the weather to London?"

Rice Accepts Broncos' Offer

NFL career receiving leader Jerry Rice reportedly accepted the Broncos' one-year contract offer today.

As the Broncos waited on an answer from Rice, Bowlen reiterated Tuesday what his coach, Mike Shanahan, had said previously -- that Rice, even if he signs with the club, still would have to prove his mettle and earn his spot on the season-opening roster.

"Jerry has been invited," Bowlen said. "As you've heard Mike say, he's going to have to make the team ..... . He's a veteran. He's one of the greatest players to ever play the game. If he can still play, we'd love to have him."

Around The League

The Vikings agreed to a one-year, $540,000 contract with kicker Paul Edinger, who was released by Chicago after the Bears signed Doug Brien. Two years ago, the Vikings tried to sign Edinger as a restricted free agent, but the Bears retained him by matching Minnesota's five-year, $7 million offer sheet. Edinger connected on only 15 of 24 field-goal attempts last season for Chicago. He will have to compete with Aaron Elling for the job in Minnesota. . . .

Arizona signed free-agent wideout Charles Lee, formerly of the Buccaneers, to a one-year deal. . . .

The Broncos have lost guard P.J. Alexander for the upcoming season because of a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee suffered during a practice. He was to compete with Cooper Carlisle for a starting job, but Denver bolstered its depth by signing former Cardinals starter Cameron Spikes as a free agent Monday.

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