Friday, October 21, 2005

Oh when the Saints go marching out

I read this with amusement.
New Orleans Mayor Disparages Saints Owner for Working With San Antonio to Keep Team in Texas

NEW ORLEANS - Mayor Ray Nagin disparaged Saints owner Tom Benson on Wednesday for working with San Antonio officials to permanently keep the NFL team in Texas.

The mayor's comments came after the departures of two top Saints executives who were supportive of keeping the Saints in Louisiana. Nagin is concerned that San Antonio officials said publicly that Benson is working with them to relocate the franchise to Texas.

"We want our Saints, we may not want the owner back," Nagin said while attending the reopening of Cafe Du Monde in the French Quarter.

"I'm ready to go to the NFL and to (commissioner Paul) Tagliabue and say, 'Give us the Cleveland plan,' " Nagin added, referring to the league awarding Cleveland an expansion team almost immediately after the Browns moved to Baltimore after the 1995 season. "Whatever the Saints want to do, you let them leave, but they can't take our logo, they can't take our name, and you give us a promise to give us a franchise when this city's back."

A Saints spokesman did not return a telephone call and e-mail seeking a response to Nagin's comments.

"For them to be openly talking to other cities about moving is disrespectful to the citizens of New Orleans, disrespectful to the Saints fans who have hung in with this franchise through 30-something years under very trying times," Nagin said.

The Saints joined the NFL in 1967. In 1986, Benson was part of an ownership group that bought the team to ensure it would stay in Louisiana. Benson eventually bought out other members of the group.

During Benson's ownership, the state of Louisiana has built him a new headquarters, including spending $6.75 million for an indoor practice field in 2003. The state also has paid for repeated improvements to the Louisiana Superdome at Benson's insistence during the past two decades.

On Monday night, Benson fired Arnold Fielkow, the team's top business executive since 2000. Fielkow had overseen a 36-game sellout streak at the Superdome and negotiated an unprecedented stadium lease that called for the state to pay Benson $187 million in direct subsidies over 10 years.

But Fielkow has said he believed the Saints needed to be leaders in New Orleans' rebuilding process after Hurricane Katrina and repeatedly praised Saints fans in Louisiana as the best and most loyal in the NFL. Fielkow has since said that stance led to his dismissal....
Take this as another reason why government shouldn't spend a dime to help a private business, especially with building sports arenas. Evidently there was no contractual obligation for the Saints to stay, otherwise the mayor would be threatening litigation. Well, that's gratitude for you. I think it's deserved and even a little bit funny.

This is another critical difference between the private sector, which is very careful because it spends its own money, and government, which has no incentive to be careful as it spends other people's money. A private firm that built and kept upgrading a sports stadium would have demanded that the team sign a contract, something stipulating that the team would not leave for a minimum number of years, or that it would reimburse certain costs; something to protect the firm's investment in the stadium. Government rarely thinks of such things because it ultimately has nothing to lose; whatever is lost can be backed by "the full faith and credit" of the taxpayer's wallet. The government officials should have known better than rely on "trust," and hopefully enough voters will have the sense to hold them responsible for this. (Unfortunately they're more likely to hold officials "responsible" for not being paternalist enough in giving out aid money.)

The most important point is this: to whom do the Saints belong? Do they belong to the people of New Orleans, or to the owners? Obviously the latter, yet the former like to call them "our team." So I have a proposal: if the people of New Orleans really want the Saints to stay, then let them raise money to buy the team, or find investors with the means to take over the Saints. Then they'll have the proper authority to keep the team in New Orleans. Until then, the owners have the right to move the team.

The Saints want to move to Texas not just because they "like it" better. They have no choice because they're worried that New Orleans' economy can no longer support them. I would be greatly surprised if the NFL risked awarding a new franchise to New Orleans if/when the Saints leave. The city's population is not expected to be what it was pre-Katrina, so any football team cannot afford to stay in business with the reduced fan base, let alone in a struggling economy where far fewer fans can afford to attend games.

Mayor Nagin needs to learn that no amount of respect will keep a team solvent, and that the people of New Orleans likely lack the means to continue supporting the Saints as they have been doing.

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