Monday, January 15, 2007

Saints Aside -- Living in the Big Easy, isn’t a great of fun

On the best of days Saturday night at 11:00 PM in the New Orleans Superdome stood as an example of what sports should be all about. On the worst of days Saturday night at 11:00 PM in New Orleans Ninth Ward stood as an example of what society and life in America should never be about. If any one event symbolizes where our society places its emphasis, in this case in the wrong places, any suggestions basing the resurrection of the City of New Orleans has anything to do with the success that the New Orleans Saints have enjoyed on the football field is reprehensible. That in no way should reflect on what is a great football story, but at the end of the day the Saints success is nothing more than that – the story of a once losing football team winning for the first time.

“When you’re here, and you see everybody being peaceful and loving and together, it gives you the picture of how life can be here,” Deanne Aime, 69, sipping merlot in a parking lot across from the Superdome before the Saints defeated the Philadelphia Eagles, 27-24, on Saturday told the New York Times.

Wearing a Saints bandana, Aime made it clear to The New York Times, reality for Saints fans was right around the corner.

“I cry a lot,” she said.

In what had to be a surreal moment, in the hours before the game thousands of Saints fans filled a plaza between the Superdome and the New Orleans Centre, where the top of the glass rotunda has still not been repaired. On a hastily built stage Saints owner Tom “Boogie” Benson was introduced to the multitude.

“We’d really like to thank Mr. Tom Benson,” the M.C. said, “who really stuck by the Saints ...” (in a classic example of bad mojo, the introduction ended then and there). Nonetheless a few moments later after the system had been repaired, Benson spoke to the fans.

“We’re going to be dancing tonight,” he said in his easy drawl. The crowd cheered.

He added according to The New York Times report, “This day will be something for all of us to remember for a long, long time, I tell you.” The Saints arrived for Saturday night’s game as one of the longest-suffering franchises in professional sports. In 40 years, they had won once in the playoffs, a wild-card game in December 2000. They lost the next week. Sunday’s appearance in the NFC title game marks the franchises first opportunity to play in any championship game.

"It's so weird we have the ultimate mood swing in this city," said Aimée Menard, a seventh and eighth grade reading and writing teacher in a Washington Post report "You watch the games and you say: 'Oh, the Saints! Did you see Reggie [Bush]? Did you see Marques [Colston] or did you see Joe Horn?' Then you go home and you turn on your TV and you see the murders and you say, 'Ohhhhh, right.' Reality again."
And the reality, the Ninth Ward remains what it has been since Hurricane Katrina destroyed the city more than 16 months ago, and according to a New York Times report just a few miles from the Superdome, swaths of neighborhoods remain virtual ghost towns. In the Lower Ninth Ward, below the rebuilt levee of the Industrial Canal, the neighborhood is a mix of crumbled houses and wiped-clean lots, usually with nothing but a concrete slab where a house once stood.

Crime and gang violence (symptomatic problems most major urban American cites have faced) has become so major an issue in the Big Easy the crime spree has captured national attention.

"Because we are so thin and so small as a city now, it doesn't take much to put people on edge," said Steve Watson, who owns the Kingpin bar in the Uptown section and did not attend the rally in a Washington Post report. "We've always had this crime before. But after the storm we thought maybe there is a chance to make things better. It was a chance to have a clean slate. And now it's come back. . . . "

Watson, whose father is the former Washington Capital Bryan "Bugsy" Watson, let his words trail off.

"There's so much goddamn work to be done," he said. "It's just one thing after another."

"People are feeling helpless and there is a feeling of despair and anger," said Bart Everson, a multimedia artist and friend of Helen Hill, a filmmaker whose murder last week shocked the city and helped spark Thursday's march. "It's anger that drives people to march to City Hall and say 'I'm tired of it.' "

The Saints success on the football field is important, make that essential to the short-term faith residents in New Orleans might enjoy about their city, but it’s nothing more than that, short-term pain with the reality that the long-term pain isn’t going anywhere.

"It's no-man's land out here, it's the Wild West," said Michael Homan, an associate professor of theology at Xavier University of Louisiana.

"It's so psychologically draining to live here," Homan continued in The Washington Post report. "Every day is something. Today I have to talk to an architect and a lawyer about our lawsuit" against an insurance company.

"People like me come out of their FEMA trailers on game day," Ronnie Dugas a Saints season ticket holder told The Toronto Sun. "We leave our trailers to forget for three and a half hours. That's how much this team means.

"It's all I think about every week, something good. I lost everything in my home. Everything I own. I deserve something to feel good about."

"It sounds silly, but this is something to be happy about, something to tell us that the city is coming alive again," said cab driver Alfonso Garcia, who shuttled a visitor through the worst areas, including a tour of his own rebuilding home.

"It's like how people feel about the Saints. If it can get rid of the sick in the head feeling for a little while, then this is good."

Donte Stallworth, on the losing side Saturday night as a member of the Eagles, played for the Saints last year; their homeless season when the Saints finished with a 3-13 record (the second worst in the NFL) remembered a visit he made to New Orleans last year as a member of the Saints.

"Some of (the evacuees) had lost family members," Stallworth told The Toronto Sun. "Some of them had lost children, lost everything that they had ever worked for. And the thing that surprised me the most talking to those people was that they didn't mention anything about that.

"They were just wondering about how the Saints were doing. Is everybody ready to start the 2005 season?"

All that is fair enough but consider what this Saints fan told the Toronto Sun’s Rob Longley in the days leading up to Saturday nights’ 27-24 thrilling win over the Philadelphia Eagles, and think about this in terms of where this man’s life is and where everyone’s life really is in post Katrina New Orleans.

"The way it all played out, it was the right decision," said Bobby Tortorich, another season-ticket holder who no longer lives in temporary housing but can speak for those who do.

"The Saints truly have brought everyone together at a time when the city needed it more than ever. And it's a lot easier to sleep in a FEMA trailer after a win than a loss."

The Saints return to New Orleans was the feel good sports story of 2006. Ironically many sports business pundits mistakenly believed the return of the Saints was the sports business story of the year from 2006. If spending $186 million (the NFL directly contributed $20 million towards the costs) on making basic repairs to an aging, outdated football facility one the teams’ owner Tom Benson made it clear well before Hurricane Katrina he no longer wanted to be a part of, while New Orleans remains a “City in Ruins” than your glass is filled to the brim. Nevertheless, the Saints future in the Big Easy is far from certain.

"We haven't had any conversations" with team officials or owner Tom Benson about a new deal, Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco told The New Orleans Times Picayune. "We want them to focus on having as good a season as we can end up with."

The clock is ticking for Blanco and the thousands of Saints fans who believe they have found comfort from the Saints play on the football field. The Saints reportedly are ready to call New Orleans home through at least the 2010 season, but what happens after that more than likely will require a new state of the art stadium, a facility that will cost close to $1 billion.

"We've seen a lot of partnership that never was possible in the past just in re-establishing the Dome," Blanco said. "I feel like there will be a new contract and that there will be a long-term partnership with the Saints. I'm optimistic about that. And I think it's going to be a good, positive contract."

As for a new stadium, she said, "I can't predict. I think a big investment has been made in the Dome, and the Dome is a much-loved stadium for Louisiana. I suppose somewhere down the road there will be a new stadium, but I can't see it materializing in the next five years or so."

Monday, September 25, 2006 symbolically stood as a day of rebirth to many who live in the Big Easy. That night, the Saints played their first home game in more than a year, since Hurricane Katrina left hundreds of thousands homeless.

"It was extremely emotional, it was extremely exciting. When I walked the streets of the city of New Orleans, people were just so charged and so highly energized," Blanco said during a year-end review with members of the media.

"When we made the decision to use the building as an example of recovery, I think it was a good decision. I knew that the Dome was the symbol of all of our misery; I saw that in those terrible suffering days, and I knew that it alone had the capacity to be the symbol of our recovery," Blanco said.

"If we had a hobbled Dome sitting there, right there in that city right now, all that national and international focus would still be there, but it would be a negative focus if we didn't stand it up. If we stood it up, and it created a certain kind of energy that continues to prevail, it's an energy that says we can and we will recover from the greatest devastation that a region has ever experienced in the history of this county," Blanco said.

All that aside, what didn’t make sense twelve months ago, makes as little sense today. The National Football League may have believed it was the ‘right’ decision to invest tens of millions of dollars in helping to rebuild the Superdome but the NFL was blindsided by a lame attempt at trying to do the right thing. It wasn’t wrong to play the key role in ensuring the Saints return to New Orleans in 2006, it was however a terribly short-sighted decision by everyone involved. It was a decision of political correctness, but one given that Saints fans are leaving their FEMA trailers for the chance to escape to a Saints is irresponsible.

What still hasn’t been determined, do the long term economic indicators in New Orleans show signs the signs can build a viable business?

Frank Vuono, a sports marketing consultant hired by the NFL, assisted the Saints in securing a naming rights partner for the state-owned Superdome. He believes a deal could be worth $4 -$6 million a year to the state; most new stadium deals average 20 years. The Saints had aggressively tried to sell the Superdome’s naming rights before the facility hosted its last Super Bowl in 2002. The Superdome’s corporate naming rights have never been sold.

"There's no way the Saints can be long-term viable in New Orleans without more corporate sponsorship," says Vuono, who has worked on nine NFL naming rights deals in a USA Today report "We're getting good response from five, six corporate sponsors. But when they saw the record ticket sales, it took away the sense of urgency. There's still urgency."

"The Superdome naming rights would be the best move a national company could make," Vuono says. "The Saints' home opener is on a Monday night. All eyes will be on New Orleans and the grand reopening of the Superdome.

"The exposure that company will get will be damn near the equivalent of a Super Bowl. And companies pay $2 million for 30 seconds of advertising during the Super Bowl."

While Benson told the media on May 17 he was happy with the Saints season ticket sales for the 2006 season surpassing the 55,000 mark, he took the opportunity to point out corporate sponsorship was ‘slow’ and only 81 of 137 luxury suites, with leases ranging from $55,000 to $135,000 had been sold.

"You haven't seen the total commitment yet," Benson said. "No National Football League team can just live on tickets alone. ... The next big step is that the business community needs to step up."

"For Tom Benson to make that statement, he certainly doesn't have a grasp of the small-business situation," says Linda Friedlander, former chairperson for Second Wind NOLA, a small-business advocacy group. "It's a region of micro-businesses. The small-business community has stepped up. It may not be buying Saints tickets. But we're doing everything in our power to stay open."

On the positive side, the Saints still have a great lease. They pay the City of New Orleans $1 million a year in rent and retain every dollar of revenue the Superdome generates. And the $12.5 million taxpayer subsidy offered to Benson in 2001 has increased to $18 million a year. And remember its nearly impossible for an NFL franchise to lose money given each NFL franchise receives $106 million a year in television revenues and the league shares 83 percent of all of their revenues.

''The Saints are everything to this community,'' Michael Siegel, a New Orleans developer told the New York Times in February, ''but Tom Benson is a businessman at heart and not a sports enthusiast.''

For reasons known only to Paul Tagliabue, the now retired NFL commissioner who made it a personal and professional priority to keep the Saints in New Orleans, at least as long as he was NFL commissioner.

''The Saints are maybe a $150 million business, whatever their revenues are,'' Tagliabue told the media at Super Bowl XL. ''The league is a $5.5 billion to $6 billion business. And I told the owners from the beginning that we needed to view this as a league responsibility.''

Next Sunday will be an unforgettable day for football fans everywhere. The NFC title game between the Saints and the monsters of the midway the Chicago Bears has all the makings of a classic one for the ages with so much on the line. Bourbon Street, the French Quarter will be alive, exciting and the place to be. But when the game ends, the future of the New Orleans and the New Orleans Saints will remain very much in doubt. Enjoy the week Saints fans – the harsh reality of what’s left of the Big Easy will have to be considered in the not too distant future.

For Sports Business News this is Howard Bloom. Sources cited and used in this Insider Report: The New Orleans Times Picayune, The New York Times, The Washington Post and the Toronto Sun

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