As the national sports press and broadcast outlets return to New Orleans this week, there will be a lot of talking heads on the television screen, as well as radio talk-show hosts, newspaper columnists, and bloggers putting forth the notion that the NFL Saints' successful season and home playoff game has gone a long way toward getting the Hurricane Katrina–ravaged city back on its feet. The hyperbole will echo what was said during the build up to the Saints' return to the Superdome for a Monday night game against Atlanta on September 25. Saints football was back in the Superdome, New Orleans had recovered.
But the truth is simple: There is no correlation between the success of a football or basketball team and the success of a city. Neither the Saints nor the NBA's Hornets can provide the cure that will jump-start the stricken New Orleans economy.
The symbolism of the return of a football team is just that — symbolism.
While the Saints' 2006 success is a good story, and Saints football provides an entertaining diversion for people trying to rebuild their lives in New Orleans after Katrina, the Saints' 10–6 record has nothing to do with New Orleans or Louisiana. With the right general manager on hand to choose the best coaching staff and personnel, who in turn select the best players, owner Tom Benson's Saints could have had the same record in San Antonio. Maybe that is the Saints' lesson to the people of New Orleans: Once you get the right people in place, you can rebuild a stricken area.
Benson's Saints might not be around New Orleans for the long term; the same goes for George Shinn's NBA franchise, which is finishing its two-year run at its temporary home in Oklahoma City. The census bureau released figures in December showing that Louisiana has lost more than 200,000 residents since August 2005, and Gulf Coast–area newspapers have been running stories about New Orleans's inability to retain young professionals, who are typically heading for other regions in the South. But New Orleans was both losing population and in a downward economic spiral for decades before Hurricane Katrina hit.
The successful professionals fleeing the Crescent City are the very people both Benson and Shinn need around to buy luxury boxes and club seats at their games and to spend money on food, parking, and team paraphernalia. If those people continue to relocate in large numbers, there is no way either Benson or Shinn's pro sports ventures can survive economically in New Orleans or the surrounding Gulf Coast.
The commissioner of the NBA, David Stern, has forced Shinn and his Hornets back from Oklahoma to New Orleans. The NBA awarded the 2008 All-Star Game to the city and there will be a major effort by the league to try to play at least 41 games in the city between November 2007 and April 2008.
But Stern can't fix the levees, nor can he fix the Ninth Ward. Stern also cannot stem the mass exodus out of New Orleans nor lure back those who have already opted to leave. That's not his job, and similarly, it isn't the job of the commissioner of the NFL, Roger Goodell. Regardless of what is said about Benson's and Shinn's efforts to rebuild the bond between the franchises and New Orleans sports fans, if the ticket buyers and the businesses — from marketing companies to advertising opportunities — aren't there, it's just empty talk.
Furthermore, until the levees are fixed, rebuilding New Orleans is going to be difficult.
Historically, New Orleans was a problematic market for both the NFL and the NBA. In 1994, Stern blocked the sale of the Minnesota Timberwolves to Louisiana businessmen, who intended to relocate the team to New Orleans; likely because it was a weak market at the time. In 2001, Benson cut a deal with then governor of Louisiana, Mike Foster, to keep Benson from moving his team: Louisiana promised Benson $186.5 million between 2002 and 2010 as a "thank you" for not taking his business elsewhere, despite Benson's existing long-term lease to use the Superdome.
The state collected tourism taxes and turned the money over to Benson; in 2002 and 2003 — the first two years of the agreement — Benson received $12 and $13 million. But trouble started in 2004, when Louisiana didn't have the $15 million to pay Benson by a mid-July deadline. While Louisiana officials found alternate revenue sources from which to pay just in time, had the state defaulted on the funding, Benson would have been free to engage other cities in talks about possibly moving his football team that September.
The following year, Louisiana went through the same drill. Then Katrina hit, and Benson was allowed to relocate his team temporarily to San Antonio, Texas. It was Paul Tagliabue, commissioner of the NFL at the time, who told Benson in no uncertain terms that he had to return to New Orleans in 2006 — and Benson complied. Despite most seats being filled at Saints games this year, Benson complains that the business community has not stepped up by purchasing pricey luxury boxes and that local business support with respect to marketing ventures and advertising has been weak.
But that should come as no surprise to the Saints owner, as the already shaky pre-Katrina New Orleans economy was devastated by the August 2005 hurricane.
Benson has four years remaining on his Louisiana bailout deal. In late December, Governor Blanco, a Democrat of Louisiana, said that when Benson and state officials sit down to discuss a lease extension that would keep Benson in town past 2010, the state will not be offering to build the Saints owner a new stadium. (Back in 2001, Benson was told by then Governor Foster that Louisiana might consider building a new facility in 2005 or 2006, which presumably would have had to have been ready for occupancy by the end of the agreement.) Blanco firmly believes the $185 million Superdome renovations to the Katrina-battered building have brought the stadium up to current NFL state-of-the-art standards.
There remains both an ethical and a moral question that must be addressed: Should Louisiana be paying Tom Benson to keep what is essentially just an entertainment forum — his football team — in New Orleans, when schools and hospitals remain closed?
And it's not only Benson reaping the benefits. Shinn was pocketing Louisiana subsidies as part of an agreement with the state to relocate his Charlotte Hornets to the Big Easy in 2002. Shinn signed a 10-year lease to play in the New Orleans Arena; in exchange for paying $2 million in annual rent, Shinn would pocket all revenue from premium seating, advertising, naming rights, concessions, novelties, and parking.
It stood to be a great deal if the corporate community bought Shinn's product. During the 2002–03 season, the business community delivered, and the Hornets played before sellout crowds, filling 91% of the New Orleans Arena seats. But in the second year, Shinn's Hornets saw a drop of about 1,300 people per game, and by 2004–05, the Hornets had the lowest attendance in the NBA. Shinn could not even sell naming rights to the arena.
On December 14, Shinn announced his team would return to New Orleans for the 2007–08 season, but he has until January 31 to change his mind. On that day, Oklahoma City officials will learn whether Shinn intends to reward the city that took in and supported his business far more than did New Orleans — by coming back.
Much will be said about New Orleans's recovery leading up to the Saints' Superdome playoff game. Neither the NFL nor the NBA has abandoned the New Orleans market, but unless the levees are repaired in a hurry, both Benson and Shinn may follow the lead of more than 200,000 Louisiana residents who left because New Orleans is no longer big enough for even a small- market team to feel at home.