Wednesday, February 28, 2007

The NFL, the NBA – professional sports and the Big Easy Blues

Try as they may, professional sports just doesn’t get it right when it comes to the Big Easy. In a seemingly never-ending search for trying to do the right thing, the National Football League and the National Basketball Association seem determined to return the New Orleans Saints and New Orleans Hornets to New Orleans on a full time permanent basis. The Saints made it back to the Superdome in time for the 2006 season and the NBA remains determined to see the NBA Hornets return to New Orleans in time for the start of the 2007-08 NBA season. This despite overwhelming evidence New Orleans remains devastated from the terrible aftermath from Hurricane Katrina that nearly destroyed New Orleans 18 months ago.

Tuesday, New York Newsday’s Ken Berger reported that the NBA Players Association executive director Billy Hunter told Berger its not sure thing the 2008 NBA All-Star Weekend will be held in New Orleans where it is currently scheduled to take place. Hunter offered his assessment in part reacting to the lawless NBA All-Star weekend the NBA ‘experienced’ ten short days ago.

"I'm wondering, how will New Orleans accommodate all these people if they elect to come to New Orleans?" Hunter said. "They'll shut the city down.

"First of all, their police force is dissipated. They're probably dealing with half the force they had before. They don't have all the resources that we will need to properly police the city. They've got a serious crime problem as it is. And so what are they going to do?"

Hunter told Berger that he plans to meet with NBA commissioner David Stern in the “immediate” future and unless the NBAPA hears what Hunter wants to hear about the safety of NBA players in New Orleans, Hunter and the NBAPA want the event moved elsewhere and are prepared to take the NBA to court if need be.

"If the union is not convinced that the city can accommodate the All-Star Game," Hunter said, "it's an issue that will be subject to litigation between the union and the league."

The NBA released a statement Tuesday night trying to reassure everyone the 2008 NBA All-Star Weekend will be held in New Orleans.

"We're looking forward to New Orleans playing host to next year's All-Star events and are equally excited about the Hornets' return to the city next season," NBA commissioner David Stern said in the statement. "The reports we have received about other major events and conventions recently held in New Orleans have been very positive, and we fully expect All-Star 2008 to be a great success.

"While progress is still necessary in the continued rebuilding efforts, we hope the return of the Hornets and the coming All-Star game will be part of the rebirth and vibrancy of the New Orleans community."

That may have been the ‘message’ Stern wanted released Tuesday night, but ten short days ago, Stern offered a not to subtle hint about the Hornets long-term future. As part of his “State of the Sport” held as part of the NBA’s All-Star Weekend, David Stern sounded anything but convinced the NBA has a long-term future in New Orleans, but did suggest if Hunter calls Commissioner Stern about where the 2008 NBA All-Star Weekend will be held, Stern’s stands behind the Big Easy.

“We're looking forward to it. We've been checking on other conventions that have been housed there, hosted, and the reports have been very positive and upbeat. Our team will be playing there next season, but I don't want to be Pollyanna-ish. You read in the New York Times that people are -- yesterday's, I guess, front page of the Times -- not yesterday -- yes, I think it was yesterday, actually I've been here a long time. About people just tossing the towel in and leaving. And although sort of politics and government are not our beat, it sure would be nice to see a plan, almost unrelated to basketball, completely unrelated to basketball, to deal with the issues for the people of New Orleans that hasn't been dealt with.

“We want to be good citizens, but we'd like to see just something that takes care of the displaced people and a place that hasn't really made a lot of progress, because it really is not going to be that much fun to be there if progress hasn't been made, even though it won't affect our visitors. We think it's time to move past having this wonderful tourist ability, a great convention center, and a covered arena, and then you take your guests on tours of areas that have been devastated and where it seems like very, very little has been done. We don't understand it.

“But that doesn't stop us from being behind our Hornets, having worked with them to have a sponsorship lineup that is going to be better and larger than it was before they were displaced and working to have ticket sales that will be very robust. But that's going to be, to me, we'd love to be part of the rebirth and vibrancy of that community rather than something that is an exception to what's going on.” Stern said

When pressed about the long-term viability of the NBA in New Orleans Stern didn’t mince his words.

“Well, you know, what we said to the folks in New Orleans was we are concerned that we would like not to come back and not be successful. And that's why we're putting in enormous efforts into the return of the team, to using All-Stars, to combine and have sales with and tickets and corporate sponsorships, Crescent City Partners. I've been down there. I've met with potential investors. I've met with potential sponsors. I've met with season ticket holders, Suite holders, you name it.

“I think we can probably make it work and we're very optimistic about that. But it doesn't make me feel so good when I go down there and see the inaction for the people in New Orleans. But we're not going to be part of the problem; we're going to be part of the solution, if there's a will in Louisiana and New Orleans to solve the issues.”

Nonetheless the Hornets continue to move forward with their plans to return full-time to New Orleans at the start of the 2007-08 NBA season. The Hornets announced over the weekend they will launch their 2007-08 season ticket sales campaign on March 5. Hugh Weber, the Hornets' chief operations officer, told the New Orleans Times Picayune some of the teams’ prices will reflect the costs what tickets were in 2004-05 the last full season the Hornets played in New Orleans. Weber also suggested the Hornets sales staff will ask some of its longstanding and more influential season ticket and suite holders if they’ll get directly involved in the sales process.

“We will basically ask them to host an event. We'll go to their event. We ask them to invite their friends and family," Weber said. "From the Hornets, we would give them an insider to make it a benefit for them to show up."

“It's a chance for us to get in front of folks in the community who could be potential season-ticket buyers. We'll probably host some ourselves, and we'll go to their homes, country clubs or place of business. I would describe it as a town-house-type setting to put a personal face on our efforts.”

If Hunter follows through on his intent to move the 2008 NBA All-Star Weekend the result would seriously impact Weber’s sales efforts. A key component to the Hornets return to the Big Easy sales campaign will include guaranteeing anyone who purchases Hornets season tickets for the 2007-08 season tickets to at least one 2008 NBA All-Star Weekend event.

"We're trying to reintroduce ourselves," Weber said. "The first phase of these was doing a data dive on who these people were and what was important to them two years ago and what they've done in the last two years, like have they bought multiple six-game packages.

"We're reaching out instead of just sending a letter and invoice, which a lot teams do in their renewal campaigns.

Friday, the San Antonio Business Journal reported San Antonio still has a chance at landing the New Orleans Saints. San Antonio’s Alamodome was home to three Saints home games during the 2005 season when the Saints played their entire home schedule away from New Orleans directly as a result of the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

Former Vikings Owner Red McCombs, a San Antonio resident suggested time was of the essence if San Antonio wanted to make a move on the Saints and pointed out the obvious – there are many issues facing the Saints long-term future in New Orleans.

As was the case when David Stern delivered his “State of the Sport”, at Super Bowl XLI NFL commissioner Roger Goodell was asked how he viewed the Saints future in New Orleans.

“I think the whole New Orleans Saints and the Gulf Coast region has been a great story for the NFL this year, not just because of the Saints success on the field, but also because of what you're seeing the team has done for that community. It's obviously a community that was tragically impacted. It is still going through a recovery period.

“But we're very proud of the fact that Tom Benson brought his Saints back there very early last year, before we even knew we had a place to play. And the league, Tom Benson, and the rest of us participated in trying to get that stadium back and running, which was identified as one of their primary objectives in New Orleans by the governor.

“And we're proud of the fact that we got that facility open. It created new revenues for that community, it brought hope back to that community. The Saints brought hope back to their community, and people like Drew Brees and his wife, have done great work there. We're proud of what the Saints have done and our hats are off to Tom Benson and his group for doing it.”

The good news, the Saints’ current lease keeps them in New Orleans for at least the next three NFL seasons. However, the ‘fine print’ the language included in the Saints current agreement permits the Saints to walkway from their current lease agreement as long as they serve notice by March 31, 2007.

The bad news, Saints owner Tom Benson wants a new state-of-the-art stadium for the Saints. It costs more than $185 million to renovate the Superdome following Hurricane Katrina. Taxpayers contributed more than $165 million, with the NFL adding $20 million.

"Our people are in talks," Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco told The New Orleans Times Picayune declining to elaborate. "I think we are going to get a consensus (for the Saints) to stay at least through 2010," the year the existing contract tying the Saints to the Superdome expires. That contract allows the Saints to opt out of the deal by March 31, but the team would have to repay about $70 million the state has provided for a practice facility and annual inducements to the team.

Blanco said she is optimistic the Saints will not cancel the contract next month.

"We are hoping that they don't," Blanco said. "I feel like discussions are leading them to staying until at least 2010."

Frank Vuono, a sports marketing consultant hired by the NFL, assisted the Saints in securing a naming rights partner for the state-owned Superdome discussed the Saints future in New Orleans with the USA Today prior to their return to the Superdome on September 25. 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."

The problems the Saints had before Katrina have only been magnified. The Superdome has 137 luxury boxes; it has been years since the boxes have been sold out for more then the occasional game. The cities population before Katrina had fallen below 500,000. It’s a safe bet the population in New Orleans will never again approach 500,000. Thousands of businesses have left the Big Easy, and they’re never coming back.

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 that $12.5 million taxpayer subsidy made to keep Benson happy 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 last February, ''but Tom Benson is a businessman at heart and not a sports enthusiast.''

Gov. Banco made it clear the Times Picayune two weeks ago while she wants and believes the Saints should remain in New Orleans the state isn’t prepared to provide any additional funding for the organization.

Gov. Banco did suggest the state would consider additions near the Dome "would be the next level of comfort" for football fans. "I am open to that kind of discussion, but I don't know what kind of obligation they would be looking for from us," Blanco said.

Blanco would not say how much the state would be willing to commit.

"We are not going to enhance the money" in the existing 10-year, $186.5 million contract, which includes annual cash payments to the team and construction of a $6.7 million practice facility.

No one directly associated with the National Football League or the New Orleans Saints seems prepared to commit the Saints will be in New Orleans beyond the 2007 season. There remains a real possibility the Saints could move to a new home in time for the 2007 season, although logistically that may be next to impossible.

Every single indicator points to the Saints leaving New Orleans in the very near future, no later than the end of the 2010 season. It never made any sense for the NFL to return to New Orleans for one season only to be faced with the same challenges the franchise had to deal with before Katrina. The only difference – the terrible toll from Katrina, $20 million spent by the NFL and $165 million by Louisiana taxpayers to fix the Superdome.

Just how embarrassing is it going to be if when his March 31 deadline arrives in a months’ time, Tom Benson announces he’s moving the Saints? Try and imagine what could have been accomplished with the $185 million invested in one or two seasons of NFL football in New Orleans? The Saints returning to New Orleans for a few seasons should be considered offensive to anyone with a sense of decency. New Orleans is going to return to its former ‘glory’ as one of America’s great destination cities. That isn’t going to take place today, tomorrow or for many years to come, but it will take place. To pour hundreds of millions of dollars into sports facilities and into sports teams is a catastrophic decision of biblical proportion. Bring the 9th Ward back to life, fix the schools, take care of the people and then focus on sports teams.

For this is Howard Bloom. Sources cited in this Insider Report: The New Orleans Times Picayune

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