-- The NFL will consider relocating the New Orleans Saints to Los Angeles if New Orleans is unable to recover from the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, three sources familiar with the league's deliberations on the matter said.
The NFL plans to return the Saints to New Orleans if the city demonstrates it can still support the team, the officials said. But they said the league is concerned that the area will not be able to fully bounce back and is thus open to the possibility of having the Saints play in San Antonio next season and then move permanently to Los Angeles.
The Saints have been based in San Antonio since being displaced by the hurricane in August, but the league has no interest in that city as a permanent home for the club, said the sources, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because no firm decisions have been made and the deliberations are at a sensitive stage. The NFL has been actively seeking to return to Los Angeles, the second-largest television market in the country, which has not had a franchise since the Raiders left for Oakland after the 1994 season.
"We're going to try to ride out the rest of this year the best way we can," a source involved in the discussions said. "They could very well spend another year in San Antonio. If you're looking at it long-term, L.A. is a no-brainer. But I also think we need to give New Orleans and Louisiana a shot. We have absolutely no obligation to San Antonio. None."
A decision to move the Saints would be a major blow to civic pride and morale in New Orleans as it seeks to rebuild. Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco (D) plans to make the state's case for keeping the franchise in the city this weekend when she meets with NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue.
The Saints have played two home games at the Alamodome in San Antonio and have a third scheduled to be played there in December. The Saints are playing four home games in Baton Rouge, La., beginning Sunday against the Miami Dolphins.
The club's usual home stadium, the Louisiana Superdome, was damaged by Katrina and its subsequent use as a shelter for people displaced by the hurricane, but officials said the building remains structurally sound and they have begun repairing it. The repairs will cost an estimated $125 million to $200 million and could be completed as soon as mid-October next year, Superdome officials said. They added that they are debating whether to begin previously planned improvements that would cost an additional $175 million.
Superdome officials said they expect all, or practically all, of the cost of repairing the building to be covered by insurance money and federal funds. But the state would have to come up with a different means to fund any improvements. State officials are hopeful that the Saints could split their home schedule between LSU's Tiger Stadium in Baton Rouge and the Superdome next season.
Blanco plans to meet this weekend with Tagliabue and Saints owner Tom Benson when all three are in Baton Rouge for the Saints-Dolphins game. State leaders hope that Tagliabue will convince NFL team owners, who must approve any franchise relocation by a three-fourths margin, that the league has a moral obligation to keep the club in New Orleans.
"I don't think they want the impression that we go through the worst disaster in the nation's history, and the Saints cut and run because the owner wanted to move," said Steve Scalise, a Republican member of the state legislature who is heavily involved in the city's rebuilding efforts. "I think that we will be able to keep the team here for now, and then we need to rebuild and recover. And hopefully as that happens, we will be capable of supporting an NFL franchise."
Even before Katrina hit, there were reports that Benson was interested in moving the team after this season to San Antonio, where he has strong business ties, or Los Angeles or Albuquerque. Benson said at an owners' meeting last summer that he had received a $1 billion offer for the franchise from potential buyers he refused to name. He has since alternated between saying he had no intention of leaving New Orleans and saying he would consider all options. He said the club needed a new stadium, not a refurbished Superdome, to be competitive.
There were reports that the Saints had sold only about 25,000 season tickets at the Superdome this season.
The other major professional team in town, the NBA's Hornets, will play 35 home games in Oklahoma City and six in Baton Rouge this season. Hornets owner George Shinn told the Times-Picayune newspaper he hopes to play three regular season games in March at New Orleans Arena, which is expected to be ready for occupancy by then. The arena was flooded and has structural damage.
One NFL team owner, who is a member of an owners advisory panel appointed by Tagliabue to look into the Saints issue, said "the league is trying to do the right thing" and keep the franchise in New Orleans but might not be able to do so because the city "has terrible troubles."
"I can't imagine spending that kind of money on the stadium when everything else needs to be fixed," said the owner, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Tagliabue said last month that the league wanted to participate in the discussions about the rebuilding of New Orleans and be a part of the city's rebirth but that it was premature to speculate about the Saints' future when the entire Gulf Coast region was trying to recover from the hurricane. It's possible that Tagliabue will address the Saints' situation publicly this weekend. The matter was to be discussed at an owners' meeting Wednesday and Thursday in Kansas City, Mo., but the meeting was postponed after the death of Giants owner Wellington Mara on Tuesday.
The Saints have already taken steps to attempt to void their lease at their training facility. Officials said they have until Nov. 27 to exercise a clause in their Superdome lease that enables them to void the lease and leave New Orleans without having to repay the state $81 million in subsidies if the Superdome is unusable. State officials said they would contest any attempt by the Saints to exercise that clause.
Benson issued a written statement last week saying that he had made no decisions about the future of the team beyond this season. A Saints spokesman said Wednesday that the team had no further comment about its future.
Shapiro reported from Washington.