-- NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue said here Sunday that the New Orleans Saints will spend at least part of next season in a temporary home but pledged that the league will make "every effort" to return them to New Orleans in the future.
After participating in a series of meetings that included Saints owner Tom Benson, Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco (D) and New Orleans Mayor C. Ray Nagin (D), Tagliabue dismissed reports that the team eventually could end up in Los Angeles. He stopped short, however, of saying that the Saints' eventual return to New Orleans is a certainty.
"The Saints are Louisiana's team [and] have been since the mid-'60s. . . . Our focus continues to be on having the Saints in Louisiana," Tagliabue said during a news conference at Louisiana State University's Tiger Stadium before the Saints played the Miami Dolphins.
The game was the first for the Saints in Louisiana since they were displaced from New Orleans in August by Hurricane Katrina. They are based this season in San Antonio, where they have played two games at the Alamodome and will play one more in December. This was the first of four games scheduled to be played in Baton Rouge.
Repairs are under way at the Superdome, the Saints' home in New Orleans that was damaged by Katrina. Superdome officials say the building might be ready to host some Saints games next season. But the timetable is not definite, and Tagliabue said the league is making plans for the club to play some of its games elsewhere next season. Tagliabue said that San Antonio and Baton Rouge are under consideration.
"Our current assumption there is again that there will have to be some interim or temporary arrangement for the Saints' playing schedule next year," he said.
Tagliabue said he participated in one meeting Sunday with Benson and Blanco, another with Blanco and her staff, and another with Blanco and Nagin. According to the Associated Press, Blanco said she was "very encouraged" by the meetings.
After the game, Benson swatted at a camera belonging to a New Orleans television station and got into a shouting match with a fan, according to the AP.
The Saints' lease at the Superdome enables them to leave New Orleans after this season if they repay the state $81 million in subsidies. A clause in the lease would enable the team to break the lease without repaying the subsidies if the facility is deemed unusable.
Three NFL sources told The Washington Post that the NFL might allow the Saints to remain in San Antonio next season with an eye toward a future move to Los Angeles if New Orleans cannot rebuild and support the team. Tagliabue called reports that the club could be headed to Los Angeles "nonsensical."
Said Tagliabue: "There have been similar reports over the past number of years about the Indianapolis Colts landing in Los Angeles, the Arizona Cardinals landing in Los Angeles, the Seattle Seahawks landing in Los Angeles, the Minnesota Vikings landing in Los Angeles. The last time I looked, none of them were in Los Angeles. . . . We're making every effort to keep the Saints as Louisiana's team."
However, even Tagliabue's closest advisers on the matter say otherwise. Tagliabue has appointed an advisory committee consisting of eight owners of NFL teams, and one of those owners said last week that the Saints could end up in Los Angeles.
The owner, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the deliberations, said "the league is trying to do the right thing" but is concerned that New Orleans might not make a full recovery, and added: "I would think L.A. is where we'd like them to go, but Benson wants to go to San Antonio. I really don't think he can go back to New Orleans."
Tagliabue called the Saints' current lease at the Superdome "flawed" and said the team's business model needs to be "expanded" so that the club better represents the entire state. He left open the possibility of the team eventually playing a game or two per season in Baton Rouge even if it returns to New Orleans, and of the club's name being changed to the Louisiana Saints. He said the league perhaps could provide financial assistance to the Saints.
"No sports league has ever had to deal with the issues that we're dealing with. . . . I've told our people to think outside the box," Tagliabue said.