Tuesday, September 06, 2005

Homeless NFL Team Seeks Place to Flop
On the list of problems facing New Orleans at the moment, one getting a disproportionate amount of attention is the plight of the NFL's New Orleans Saints. Lots of things matter more, but the Saints are a timely story, with the NFL regular season opening this weekend.

The Saints' immediate problem is where to play this season. The likeliest choice is probably the Alamodome in San Antonio, Texas. Rightfully fearing minuscule crowds in San Antonio, which is over 500 highway miles from New Orleans, the NFL would prefer the team play all 16 games on the road. That almost certainly won't happen. They'll have to land somewhere, and it won't be for just a year. The Louisiana Superdome will require massive repairs after Katrina, and if they're undertaken at all, they won't be completed in a year. If the Superdome must be demolished--a clear possibility--it may be even longer before the Saints can find a home in the city. In addition, corporate support in the form of sponsorships and luxury-suite and season-ticket buys, all-important for any NFL team, have been dwindling in New Orleans over the past several years anyhow. Katrina isn't going to help. Ergo, the speculation that the Saints have played their last game in New Orleans. If the Saints play this season in San Antonio, they might just end up staying permanently.

The New Orleans Times-Picayune newspaper published an editorial over the weekend begging the Saints to not to leave the city. In it, the paper summons up the same arguments used in other places and at other times when a pro sports team is threatening a move: Saints fans have packed the Superdome year after year despite terrible records, pro sports brings a city together, etc., etc.

Well, OK, let's see. Attendance figures are verifiable, and they aren't as great as the paper makes them out to be. The team has drawn in excess of 90 percent of capacity since 2000, but attendance was down last year--and in the mid 90s, the team struggled to fill half the available seats. As for the idea that a team "brings a city together," that's impossible to quantify, and may end up being one of those things everybody knows but nobody can prove. But even if you concede that those arguments have some merit, there's little doubt that one of the newspaper's arguments is far less defensible.
The Dome is wrecked, and it is a place known for misery right now. But it can be refurbished. Its rebuilding can be a hopeful sign to the hundreds of thousands of residents who have been scattered across the region by Hurricane Katrina - people who have lost not only loved ones and homes, but their entire community.
"It can be refurbished." Yes, but by whom? Modern sports economics requires municipal and state governments to pay the majority of the price--if not all of it--for sports stadiums. Saints owner Tom Benson isn't going to write a check for $500 million to build a new place to play. But in a city as devastated as New Orleans, with thousands dead, many more thousands homeless, and challenges as yet unimagined remaining to be faced, the very last thing the city and state should be spending money on is a facility for an NFL team. And at the moment, I'd guess that idea brings the city together in a way the New Orleans Saints never could. And I'd guess further that residents of New Orleans need to see several dozen other hopeful signs first before they can permit themselves the luxury of hoping for a new stadium.

Nobody likes the idea of their team moving to another city. But reality, like Katrina herself, is a bitch.

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