Saints' season tickets lagging at 26,000

Despite his best efforts, Saints owner Tom Benson couldn't dance away from the issues surrounding his team's future without dropping a few hints.

Updated: May 25, 2005, 3:32 PM ET
By Len Pasquarelli | ESPN.com

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- For years, the football fans of the New Orleans Saints have watched Tom Benson perform his own brand of victory waltz, celebrating his team's most notable wins by boogying wildly around the floor of the Superdome with gilded parasol in hand.

On Tuesday, though, the Saints owner added a new, and apparently well-rehearsed step to his repertoire.

The tap dance.

Besieged by questions about the future of his franchise, as NFL owners opened two days of meetings here on mostly business-related issues, Benson verbally bobbed and weaved and two-stepped around most of the pointed queries. Still, his footwork wasn't quite deft enough to allow Benson, light on his feet but with a certain gravity to his manner, to dance away without at least offering a few hints.

Primary among them: Still unable to strike a deal with the state of Louisiana for a new stadium, the Saints boss has cast at least a fleeting glimpse toward the West Coast. And, of course, toward the potentially lucrative market that awaits some owner in Los Angeles, where the NFL is still intent on placing a team sometime in this decade.

OK, so maybe it's not time for NFL fans in New Orleans to turn the city into The Big Uneasy. There are, after all, long odds on Benson going anywhere, and plenty of hurdles to overcome before he could order a fleet of moving vans. But given Benson's remarks here, one didn't have to read too hard between the lines to understand that he is mulling all his long-term options.

And while relocation is an alternative Benson would prefer not to consider, he can't ignore it, either.

"Oh, we've talked a lot about our situation," Benson said, shortly after he had adjourned a session of the influential finance committee, which he chairs. "The league is very aware of the things that are going on. And people seem to understand that we can't keep going with things the way they are right now. There are a lot of things to consider."

No doubt, some of Benson's rhetoric was posturing, aimed at trying to convince the local politicians in New Orleans of the need for an upgrade. But Benson is savvy enough to understand that you can't cry wolf forever without delivering a threat that includes some degree of bite. Just recently, when Benson's close friend and attorney Stanley Rosenberg floated the notion that the Saints might be forced to consider San Antonio as a possible landing spot if they flee New Orleans, the trial balloon crash-landed.

So on Tuesday, the Saints owner took matters into his own hands, with words from his own mouth. No proxies involved, just Benson, the undeniable go-to guy for the media on a slow news day, serving up his home-spun philosophies. Benson likely held court longer on Tuesday than he has in all of his past league meetings combined, and there certainly was a calculated reason for his linguistics largesse.

Some of it was damage control, a lot of it was meant to hint at least of the damage that might be inflicted on the city of New Orleans if the Saints pull up stakes. If there was some saber-rattling involved, Benson suggested strongly the uprooting the Saints would be like plunging a knife into his heart, but also into the hearts of Saints' fans.

"Our situation isn't good, everyone knows it, and it has to get better," Benson said.

About the only thing missing, it seemed, was the or else . . . addendum.

If Rosenberg was trying to do Benson a favor last week, he failed, and miserably. As a corporate stalking horse, he might be ready for the glue factory. Saints fans, among the league's most loyal and long-suffering, have purchased only 26,000 season tickets for 2005. More significant, there is a sense of ennui surrounding the ongoing battle between the team and Gov. Kathleen Blanco, who inherited a bum deal that was negotiated by her predecessor.

There is, for sure, a danger here: During all the bad seasons, and all of the incompetent performances of the past, Saints fans have mostly remained passionate about their team. But in the wake of the political brinksmanship being currently waged, some emotion has waned, and the fan base has taken a hit.

Benson on Tuesday deflected suggestions that slumping ticket sales reflected a backlash from the fans, preferring to assign the slippage to the economy of a severely blunted city and state. But economics have always been a compelling issue for the Saints, and could be the component that eventually opens the exit door for Benson and his team.

One thing working against Benson is an ill-fitting time-line. The Saints have an escape clause in their current lease, one that accords the team a 90-day window in which to leave after the 2005 season, provided the franchise repays the $81 million in subsidies Benson has received to date. If Benson doesn't exercise that opportunity, the window closes. But league officials, who had hoped to have a team in Los Angeles by 2008, now privately concede it will be 2009 or 2010 before the long void there is filled.

Whether he remains in New Orleans or relocates, Benson left little doubt that he and his family will remain the owners of the Saints franchise. When he was queried about some reports that a group of Los Angeles investors had offered him $1 billion for his franchise, Benson recoiled.

"I don't care if they offer me $6 billion," said Benson, whose has made known his intentions to will the team to his granddaughter, Rita Benson LeBlanc, who currently is listed as executive/owner of the Saints. "And I'm not going to do anything, to talk to anyone, until February, after we win the Super Bowl. I think we're going to have a heck of a team and a heck of a season. . . . So I'll just sit back and wait."

The fervent hope for Benson, of course, is that the Saints, a talented but underachieving bunch, finally reach their potential in 2005. That would provide him, he acknowledged, with plenty of leverage. Leverage in discussions with the state of Louisiana, or in a state of uncertainty.

"You always want to deal," noted Benson, winking, "from a position of strength."

Len Pasquarelli is a senior writer for ESPN.com.