Saints may soon march out of town

Wednesday, September 14, 2005

The New Orleans Saints gave the NFL just what it wanted Sunday -- a feel-good story to warm the hearts and wrap the flag around. The team with no home won one for people with no homes.

Saints fans cheered as they watched on big screens in shelters across the country, and for a few hours, at least, everyone had something to smile about.

If this were a Hollywood movie, the Saints would go on to win the Super Bowl, the parade down Bourbon Street would spark the city's rebuilding effort, and the team that saved New Orleans would become as much of an institution as Mardi Gras.

Unfortunately, this is real life. And that leaves the future of the Saints almost as murky as the water that still covers much of the city.

The most immediate part of that future begins Monday night when the Saints travel to New York to play the Giants for a "home" game in front of some 78,000 fans who won't be cheering for running back Deuce McAllister and don't have a clue who Wayne Gandy is (for the record, he's an offensive lineman).

The only home field advantage in the Meadowlands belongs to Saints owner Tom Benson. He's the guy who, thanks to the NFL, will pocket the receipts from a large paying crowd made up almost entirely of Giants' season ticket holders.

The Giants can probably use an extra home game to help calm Eli Manning down, but there was really no logistical reason why the Saints couldn't have hosted the game in San Antonio. Because oddsmakers usually figure the home team advantage is worth three points, the Saints went from possible 3-point favorites to 3-point underdogs by having to travel to New York.

"As a football coach that is not the best thing for this team," Saints coach Jim Haslett said of the move to New York.

In reality, the Saints will have only three games they can legitimately consider home games all season. The team is based now in San Antonio and, other than the three games now scheduled for the Alamodome, New Orleans will travel to every game.

(True, four of those games will be in Baton Rouge, La., where the crowd will be cheering for the Saints. But the team will have to travel there to play, and it will be an unfamiliar atmosphere for both teams.)

For a team that had trouble winning even in normal circumstances, giving away points almost every week isn't exactly a recipe for playoff contention. But what Saints fans should fear most is what comes after this year.

The Superdome is likely history, no matter how cosmetic the damage is to the team's former home. Benson wanted a new stadium long before Katrina hit, and there's no way he's going to willingly go back to a building that is now symbolic of so much human misery.

A new stadium is also out of the question. Imagine, when much of the city needs rebuilding, the outcry if someone suggests spending hundreds of millions of dollars in taxpayer money to build a football stadium for an owner that really doesn't want to be there anyway?

It was just four years ago that Louisiana agreed to pay the Saints some $2 million a home game just to keep them in New Orleans. But even that deal was in trouble before the hurricane because, with tourism lagging, the state couldn't find enough money to put in Benson's pockets.

Under the deal, Benson would have to repay the $81 million he's already gotten if he took the team elsewhere. But all bets are off now because Benson could claim that he isn't obligated to stay in New Orleans when there no longer is a proper place to play.

Benson has given New Orleans every reason to be nervous about the future of the team. He kept silent for two weeks, then said little when questioned Monday.

"We're not going to worry about that today," he said.

Contrast that with New Orleans Hornets owner George Shinn, who was basically run out of Charlotte by angry fans but now seems to have found things to his liking in the Big Easy. Shinn needs a new temporary home for his NBA team, too, but says he plans to be back.

"Our objective is not to abandon ship here or to get out of dodge," Shinn told The Times-Picayune the other day. "Our plan is to hope and pray New Orleans rebuilds."

Benson's immediate plan, meanwhile, seems to be gauging the ability of San Antonio, where he has a home and business interests, to support a team.

If not, there's always Los Angeles, though that might mean he has to sell the Saints because the NFL would prefer local ownership. That shouldn't be a major hardship since Benson said earlier this year he had been offered $1 billion for the team.

On Sunday, the Saints gave the displaced residents of New Orleans some relief from the despair invading their lives. Sports may not help them find a new home or job, but if ever a city needed a team to do well, this was the time.

Unfortunately, they may not have long to enjoy it.

Because the next sound you hear will be these Saints marching out.

Tim Dahlberg is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press.

Respond to this story

Posting a comment requires free registration: