Commentary

IN ITS EIGHTH YEAR OUR SURVEY CROWNS THE SAINTS NO. 1 AT GIVING FANS EQUAL PARTS MUSCLE AND MERRIMENT

Updated: July 10, 2012, 4:22 PM ET
By Peter Keating

FINANCIAL ANALYSIS BY the Warsaw Sports Marketing Center at the University of Oregon (Madeline Breskin, Eric Chylinski, Travis Hanson, Kelsey Philpott, Peter Raschio and Ken Salmon)

TEAM RESEARCH BY Morty Ain, Ted Bauer, Jason Catania, Anna Katherine Clemmons, LaRue Cook, Charles Curtis, Andy Kamenetzky, Brian Kamenetzky, Max Klinger, Eddie Matz, Matt Meyers and Doug Mittler

FAN SURVEYS BY Maddock Douglas and NetReflector

BEST FRANCHISE IN SPORTS

FIVE YEARS AGO, IN THE WAKE OF HURRICANE KATRINA, THE NEW ORLEANS SAINTS RANKED LAST IN OUR ULTIMATE STANDINGS. TODAY THEY'RE NO. 1. HOW'D THAT HAPPEN? COMMITMENT TO COMMUNITY, CHAMPIONSHIP PLAY AND CHEAP PRICES. WE CHATTED WITH SAINTS NATION.

NOVEMBER 2005 What would you say to fans who think the Saints are leaving town for good?

Eighty percent of companies in New Orleans have not been able to reopen, but we are keeping this company in business. We relocated to San Antonio so we can stay afloat. We remain a Louisiana corporation, and we're paying $25 million into the state income tax fund this year. All anybody wants to do is criticize [owner] Mr. [Tom] Benson, but they're barking up the wrong tree. -Greg Bensel, team spokesman

JUNE 2010 How close did the team come to moving?

The rest of the world thought we were down and weren't coming back. We had to relocate in '05. Our practice facility was occupied by the military during that time. Publicly, everybody was talking about that. But we-ourselves and our staff-wanted to come back. We just had to find a way. And that's what we did. -Tom Benson, owner

Our standings rank all MLB, NBA, NFL and NHL teams by how they repay fans for the time, money and emotion they invest in them. (See our methodology on page 64.) The results show that fans feel a strong connection to the Saints. What accounts for that?

The bond we have with our fans, and the support we get from them, were created post-Katrina, with the struggles and hardships we all went through helping to rebuild this city. We really leaned on each other in that time, and I think it culminated in the reopening of the Superdome on Sept. 25, 2006. That symbolized the fact that New Orleans was not only going to come back, but come back stronger than ever. When we thought about winning the Super Bowl, we wanted to win it for our fans. -Drew Brees, quarterback

You always see the players in our community, especially Drew Brees. You can drive by his house and honk, and if he's working on the yard or something, he'll wave back. -Jeff Larsen, fan

We have a good website, but not a big social media presence. When players leave practice or games, they're visible, and news spreads person to person and by word of mouth. The Saints are what people talk about with their neighbors. It's neat to see. -Doug Miller, director of new media

We explicitly look for people with a certain energy level. That's one reason we hired Sean Payton. We look for tough-mindedness and intelligence, and people who see a glass as half full. We have to have players and staff who do more than football, who relish the chance to make a difference in New Orleans. -Mickey Loomis, GM

Fans love Sean Payton. Does the Saints' aggressive play help keep the team close to fans?

I think so. On offense we attack, and on defense [defensive coordinator] Gregg Williams is blitzing every other down. I think it brings more excitement to the game. -Pete Carmichael, offensive coordinator

The Superdome has some wear and tear on it, but does it have a different vibe from other venues?

There's energy in the building; even when you come out for warmups in the early part of the day, you can feel the electricity. Then you come back out for the start of the game and you can really feel something in the air. -Carmichael

You go to some other stadiums and you hear fans kind of going up and down, but here it's loud the entire game. Maybe that has something to do with the hard alcohol they serve at the stadium. Or all the crazy costumes you see. Like Whistle Monster-he has a huge whistle on his head. -Ryan Pace, director of pro scouting

So coaches on the field, no matter what they say, notice what goes on in the stands.

There's a guy who dresses like a Saints robot, and he dances during timeouts. He's phenomenal. You can't help but notice. You're still taking care of business, but there are always those five or 10 seconds when there's a little lull, and you're like, "Wow, did you see that?" -Scottie Patton, head athletic trainer

How did the "Who Dat?" chant start?

I think it was something that came out of the court system in the 1800s. I'm not exactly sure. But we didn't steal it from Cincinnati, that's for sure. They're "Who Dey?" We're "Who Dat?" -Michael Prestenback, fan

[Ed.'s note to Mr. Prestenback: "Who Dat?" originated in a song written by poet Paul Laurence Dunbar in 1898 that was part of a minstrel show.]

And we're allowed to drink walking down the street. They can't tailgate like we can down here. -Scott VanderMeer, fan

Following all those years of the Aints, of Black Mondays nearly every week, what was it like when the Saints won the Super Bowl?

It was families, friends, the older generation who had been waiting their whole lives for this, and it was nuts. We hit the [French] Quarter, Bourbon Street, and tore it up. It was Mardi Gras times 1,000. It was just love, everybody embracing each other. I think it might have stopped. I'm not really sure. -Larsen

After the Super Bowl I had so much stuff left in front of my house: wine bottles, beer, signs, cards, flowers, you name it. Just people showing their appreciation. You could tell how much it meant to them. -Brees

We estimate it costs fans an average of $90.55 to go to a Saints game, the eighth-cheapest game day in the NFL. Is that by design?

We understand our market and what makes our market work. If you invest in fans, the proof is in the pudding. Our prices are affordable, and we have sellouts. Mr. Benson gets that. -Bensel

Everyone has a story about how close this team is to its fans. What's yours?

They had a TV commercial for a furniture store that said, "You have to see the Special Man!" I played a lot of special teams. There's one guy named Shaq who would say things to me like, "Special Man! Special Man! I see you let him have it that time!" There aren't but two Fred McAfee jerseys on the planet, and he has one of them. He made me a plaque. To this day, he'll sit in the stands and call me the Special Man. -Fred McAfee, director of player development and former player

In this city, playing for this team, it's an experience week in and week out. I've had some pretty good conversations going through the grocery store. -Marques Colston, wide receiver

Coach Payton took the team on a two-hour trip to Plaquemines Parish on the coast, just to have a team rally, to let the shrimpers know we support them. And it can get to 110*, so the buses have to have tinted windows to keep the heat out and the air conditioning in. You can't see through the bus windows from the outside, but fans lined up anyway, at every traffic stop along the way. -Miller

Peter Keating is a senior writer at ESPN The Magazine, where he covers investigative and statistical subjects. He started writing "The Biz," a column looking at sports business from the fan's point of view, in 1999. He also coordinates the Magazine's annual "Ultimate Standings" project, which ranks all pro franchises according to how much they give back to fans. His work on concussions in football has earned awards from the Deadline Club, the New York Press Club and the Center for the Study of Sport in Society.