Does Louisiana need the New Orleans Saints?

Standing on the floor of the Louisiana Superdome on New Year's Day 2006 was unlike any other New Year's Day for all of us there.

The Superdome staff wasn't getting ready to host the Nokia Sugar Bowl as usual. Instead, it was just trying to get the Dome back up and running in time to welcome the New Orleans Saints back home this fall.

Outside the Dome, state officials were signaling the rebirth of New Orleans and Louisiana, thanking the first responders to Hurricane Katrina and paying tribute to those dedicated to rebuilding. Hotels were full and in parts of the city, people are beginning to return home. But hundreds of thousands of Louisianans are still displaced throughout this country – and it's hard to know if they will ever return.

Among the more famous of the displaced have been the New Orleans Saints, who became so chummy with San Antonio that the city courted them to stay, and folks back home began thinking that might not be a bad idea.

The announcement by owner Tom Benson last week that the Saints would return to Louisiana for the 2006 season is being touted as a commitment by the Saints to help rebuild New Orleans. LSU Chancellor Sean O'Keefe and Athletic Director Skip Bertman immediately issued statements saying LSU would work with the Saints to help them play in Baton Rouge if the Superdome isn't complete for the start of the season.

However, the Saints infamous financial deal with the state has made many Louisianans lukewarm on whether the state needs them. And the cold reality may be that New Orleans will not recover sufficiently within the next ten years to support an NFL franchise.

The Saints four trips to Tiger Stadium during the 2005 season could have been their finest hour.

Baton Rouge was receiving national media attention for opening its arms to those displaced by Hurricane Katrina. After visiting the city, White House officials proclaimed if there was a gold medal given for compassion, Baton Rouge would own it. If Tom Benson had only played his cards right, he would have had Tiger fans wrapping their arms and credit cards around the Saints as if they were our long-lost cousins.

Unfortunately, the games in Tiger Stadium were handled as poorly by the Saints management as possible. Confusion in purchasing tickets, long lines to pick up tickets, complaining and outbursts by Benson and his claim that he feared for his life in Baton Rouge didn't exactly help with community relations. Attendance at the Saints games started looking like the high school All-Stars were back in town.

Saints Vice President of Administration Arnie Fielkow, who got Benson the sweet deal with the state, was fired when he urged Benson to play in Baton Rouge instead of San Antonio. Connie Kowal, the marketing director with experience with the Chicago Bears and other professional sports, also resigned. Other defections followed. The season was a Category 5 disaster for Benson.

If Louisiana wants to have an NFL franchise in the future, Baton Rouge and Tiger fans should support the Saints in spite of Benson's petulant behavior. They should make Tiger Stadium the Saints home away from home – something like Rosenblatt Stadium in Omaha for the LSU Baseball Tigers. A place where locals feel such kinship and fondness for the team that they adopt and support them.

The pressure is now on to have the Dome ready for play in mid-September after Benson said Superdome officials told him it might be complete ahead of its already fast-track target of November. He has in his favor the fact that the state hired Baton Rouge-based Trahan Architects, who completed the Tiger Stadium West Side renovation in record time, as the national sports architects on the Superdome.

If the Dome isn't ready for the start of the Saints season, the NFL has expressed its interest in the Saints staying in Louisiana – which means they just might be coming back to Tiger Stadium.

If we get the chance in 2006, let's show Tom Benson the support that LSU fans extend to Louisiana teams. Let's show him the class that Tiger fans have even though he hasn't shown any toward us If Ragin' Cajun fans can tailgate alongside LSU Tigers, surely we can support an NFL franchise in which our tax dollars are heavily invested. I can see a day when the Saints might choose to play a game in Baton Rouge to draw a larger gate attendance than they can in New Orleans.

It's time for some rivalries to die. And right now, if the team is from Louisiana, we should all stand and cheer when they take the field.

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