Owner defends payments to team
NEW ORLEANS -- With the New Orleans Saints being kicked around like a political football in major statewide campaigns, team owner Tom Benson made his own play to voters a day before Saturday's election.
Politicians who've supported giving state money to the Saints became easy targets after a 55-21 loss last Sunday to Indianapolis prompted fans to wear paper bags over their heads. So Benson took a quarter-page ad in the Times-Picayune on Friday to "set the record straight."
The Saints (1-3) have only one home victory since Dec. 8, including the preseason. Sunday's prime-time loss sparked a rash of complaining letters to the editor and disgruntled talk-show discussions. Seizing upon the ill will, one candidate for state Senate even ran spots blasting her opponent for voting for a deal worked out by the state to keep the Saints in Louisiana. She said the team needed defensive backs, offensive linemen and a backup running back more than state money.
The Associated Press asked to talk to Benson on Friday, but Benson did not return the call. A team spokesman said the ad was in response to the way Saints finances became an issue in several campaigns leading up to Saturday's primary election.
Benson's letter discussed the Saints deal hammered out with the state in 2001. At that time, Gov. Mike Foster and Benson announced a 10-year agreement under which the state would help the Saints remain financially competitive by guaranteeing the team an additional $186.5 million over 10 years.
Benson's letter said that the funds paid to the team were "self-generated from ticket sales, sponsorship advertisements, concessions, tax on visiting players and other similar sources."
The money, Benson said, would not exist if the Saints were not playing in the state.
However, parts of hotel and motel occupancy taxes and revenue from all events held in the Superdome and Arena, not just Saints games, are used to fund the Saints payments.
"The bulk of the revenue that funds the Saints comes from the hotel and motel tax," said Craig Gannuch, a budget analyst for the senate financial office.
The second point of Benson's letter was that the $3 million balance the state had to raise this year was the result of the Superdome's management and the failure to sell the naming rights for the Dome. No money, Benson pointed out, was taken from the state's general fund to satisfy the obligation to the Saints.
To help cover this year's payments to the Saints and pro basketball's New Orleans Hornets, the Superdome Commission agreed to accept a $3 million emergency bailout from the stadium management company in exchange for extending the firm's contract.
That prevented dipping into the general fund to pay the Saints, but Sen. John Hainkel, R-New Orleans, believes that will happen next year.
"That just put off the inevitable," Hainkel said. "It's my opinion that the next governor is going to be faced with a big question: do we want to break the contract or do we want to dip into the general fund? And when that's decided, there's going to be a hellacious battle about dipping into the general fund."
Although he would hate to see the Saints move, Hainkel said that he believes more people are opposed to a state bailout.
"Certainly we don't want to lose an NFL team; symbolically it's tough on a town that's taken a lot of body blows," Hainkel said. "But more and more people think keeping these teams is too expensive."
Benson went on to point out a University of New Orleans study that said the Saints economic impact on the area last year was $402.17 million and creates 4,686 jobs.
Finally, Benson's letter discussed this year's 1-3 start, the worst since 2000.
"No one, including myself, is satisfied with our current performance," Benson said. "But since assuming ownership of the Saints in 1986, our win/loss percentage ranks 15th in the league, ahead of Dallas, St. Louis, Atlanta and Tampa Bay, and the popularity of our team is reflected by the fact that its TV ratings are fourth out of 32 teams in the National Football League."
The Saints, who have won only one playoff game in the 34-year history of the franchise and not made the postseason since 2000, have had 24 straight home sellouts and sold 53,313 season tickets this year, setting a record.
Copyright 2003 by The Associated Press
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