Superdome's Rebirth May Not Keep NFL's Saints in New Orleans
Superdome's Rebirth May Not Keep NFL's Saints in New Orleans
By Cary O'Reilly and Curtis Eichelberger
Sept. 22 (Bloomberg) -- The Louisiana Superdome, torn open by Hurricane Katrina and left trashed by the 30,000 people who sought refuge there, will show off its $185 million makeover during a nationally televised coming-out party Monday.
The reopening for that night's National Football League game between the New Orleans Saints and Atlanta Falcons is being touted as a symbol of the Big Easy's rise from ruin. Yet the celebration masks the uncertainty about whether the Saints can be economically viable in a city whose population was halved by one of the worst natural disasters in U.S. history.
``We've lost a lot of mid-sized businesses with annual sales of $10 million and below,' says Doug Thornton, who manages the Superdome for Philadelphia-based SMG. ``The lifeblood of the franchise is its ability to sell suites, club seats and advertising to businesses. Whether the team can sustain itself here is still in question and won't be known for the next three to five years.'
The team has received an emotional boost in returning home this year after playing all 16 games on the road last season.
The Saints have sold every ticket this season for the first time in their 40-year history, spokesman Ricky Zeller says. The franchise record of 68,354 season tickets -- the Superdome's capacity for football -- is up from the previous high of 53,728 in 2003.
Nearly all the Superdome's 137 suites also have been leased, according to team owner Tom Benson, who has car dealerships in the New Orleans and San Antonio areas and bought the Saints in 1985. The Saints have won both of their games this season.
The city's losses, though, have raised questions about whether the Saints will relocate to a city with a more robust economy when the team's Superdome lease expires in 2010.
Marc Ganis, president of SportsCorp Ltd., a Chicago-based consulting firm, says the Superdome's reopening and the Saints' return are riding more on emotion than economics.
``This first season is an aberration because there is a tremendous amount of civic pride behind this team,' Ganis says. ``You also have a lot of new money entering the community for construction and cleanup, and federal money being spent that probably won't be there in later years.'
The Saints negotiated with local officials for several years to try to build a new stadium, saying the Superdome lacked the modern, revenue-generating amenities of newer stadiums. The dome opened in 1975 and has hosted six Super Bowls, the Rolling Stones and Pope John Paul II.
The Louisiana Stadium and Exposition District, the government entity that owns the Superdome, gave the Saints a $186.5 million subsidy over 10 years starting in 2001, says Bill Curl, spokesman for the dome's operator.
Neither the National Football League nor the Saints release financial data. Forbes magazine in August estimated that the Saints' operating income ranked last in the 32-team league last season with a $4.1 million loss and that it was next to last in revenue with $160 million.
Now, the city's post-Katrina population is down to about 250,000, according to city officials, from the 485,000 in the 2000 census. The French Quarter has lost 25 percent of its businesses, with the same amount teetering on the edge of bankruptcy, according to Second Wind, a non-profit association of more than 1,000 New Orleans small businesses created to seek rebuilding assistance.
Rita Benson LeBlanc, the Saints' executive vice president and Benson's granddaughter, says the key to the team's financial success lies in developing a regional fan base. This summer, the Saints played preseason games in Shreveport, Louisiana, and Jackson, Mississippi, site of their training camp.
``Many of our partners have expanded into Baton Rouge, Lafayette and other regional cities, coinciding with our own regional marketing initiatives,' LeBlanc said in an e-mail. ``The businesses are coming back, and partnering with the Saints has given them a tremendous national platform to promote those businesses.'
She didn't respond to a later request to comment on the team's finances or whether it plans to move.
New approaches on the playing field may also help the team. After last season, the Saints fired coach Jim Haslett, replacing him with Sean Payton, a former Dallas Cowboys assistant coach. It then drafted one of the best collegiate football players, running back Reggie Bush from the University of Southern California, who won the 2005 Heisman Trophy.
The Superdome opened as a ``shelter of last resort' on Aug. 28, 2005, as Katrina bore down on the city. As many as 30,000 residents and tourists sought refuge, Curl says.
At first, children played touch football on the field while adults chatted in the stands, waiting the storm out. All that changed when the Category 4 hurricane made landfall the next morning, bringing a storm surge that breached levees protecting the city.
Winds ripped the rubber coating off the dome's roof, opening two gashes for rain to pour in. As the water rose, refugees moved higher in the stands. When the city lost power, the dome's air conditioning shut down. The plumbing went out, rendering the bathrooms unusable.
The Superdome was not meant to be a long-term shelter, so hardly any food, water or medical supplies were stored there.
People looted concession stands, refrigerators and luxury boxes, looking for food and drink. Hallways and stairways were used as bathrooms.
By the time the last refugees were evacuated from the dome on Sept. 3, the National Guard had removed 11 bodies, Curl says.
The heat and rain ruined ceiling tiles and saturated drywall, breeding mold and mildew.
The humid air reeked, and the sharply angled steps were littered with clothing, half-eaten military rations, water bottles and human waste.
``It was unbelievable,' says Joseph Gilbert, a New Orleans native who spent the last year helping clean up the stadium. ``I walked in there and said: `Oh, my God!' It's terrible to think that people died in there.'
The destruction forced the Saints to play their ``home games' in East Rutherford, New Jersey; San Antonio; and Baton Rouge, Louisiana. They lost 13 of 16 last season.
News reports in Louisiana and Texas saying Benson was considering permanently moving the franchise to San Antonio triggered a local outcry and harsh criticism from New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin.
In October, Benson said: ``There are many factors that will affect the future location of our team. The next few months should provide all of us with a clearer picture which will help us make those decisions.'
He then published an open letter in New Orleans-area newspapers headlined: ``Tom Benson wants to return to New Orleans.' The letter also was e-mailed to season-ticket holders.
In November, Benson said he no longer would attend Saints games at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge after being taunted by fans and shoving a TV camera crew.
Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco says she speaks to Benson regularly yet they have not discussed his long-term plans.
``We made a good-faith effort to get the building up and running, and it took quite a commitment to get it done,' Blanco says, interviewed by phone. ``If the team is successful, it will ensure support throughout the region and stability to the team for years to come.'
The Superdome reconstruction was funded with $116 million from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, $41 million from the Louisiana Stadium and Exposition District, at least $15 million from the NFL and $13 million from the state.
Blanco says her priorities include promoting new regional business opportunities. ``That will benefit not just the Saints, but people all throughout the region,' she says.
Today, the inside of the Superdome smells of epoxy and a fresh coat of paint the color of pink roses. There are new floors on all five levels. A new air conditioning system cools its 1.9 million square feet (177,000 square meters) of space.
A new sound system blasts music with remarkable clarity, and video boards have been expanded. The luxury suites were refitted with black granite countertops and plasma-screen television sets.
The NFL is staging a Super Bowl-style pre-game party Monday. Musical performers include U2, Green Day and the Goo Goo Dolls. Former President George H.W. Bush will make the opening coin toss.
Outside, the city still struggles. The Washington-based Brookings Institution said in August that only 11 of the city's 22 hospitals are open, electricity is reaching about 60 percent of pre-storm levels, and gas service 41 percent.
In the emotion of Monday's game, the Saints' future as a franchise isn't likely to be uppermost in the minds of fans inside the Superdome.
``The reopening of the Superdome represents the rebirth of our city,' says Thornton, manager of the structure. ``This is our World Trade Center, our ground zero.'
To contact the reporters on this story: Curtis Eichelberger in Washington at [email protected] ; Cary O'Reilly in Washington at [email protected]
Last Updated: September 22, 2006 02:31 EDT
Re: Superdome's Rebirth May Not Keep NFL's Saints in New Orleans
How U2 Plans to Help New Orleans March On
The NFL is staging a Super Bowl-style pre-game party Monday. Musical performers include U2, Green Day and the Goo Goo Dolls.
Exclusive: To celebrate the return of football to the Superdome and aid in the city's rebuilding, U2 and Green Day will debut their special new benefit single on Monday Night Football
By JOSH TYRANGIEL
Posted Wednesday, Sep. 13, 2006
Hunkered down in a London studio as they start to work on â€” albeit tentatively â€” a new album, U2 has recorded a special duet with Green Day that both bands will debut live in New Orleans on the Sept. 25th edition of Monday Night Football, when the Superdome reopens for the first time since Hurricane Katrina. The song they've chosen for their first-ever collaboration is "The Saints Are Coming" by the Skids. "It really is a slice of pure post-punk rock," U2 guitarist The Edge says via phone from the band's studio during a break in recording. "It's pure 1978, a song that was a big inspiration to us at the time and couldn't be more in the sweet spot of what Green Day are about. It perfectly intersects our mutual interests in musical terms. It's been great fun to play that tune with Green Day, who are great players and have the right stuff."
Both bands hope to release "The Saints Are Coming" as a single, with proceeds going to Music Rising, the fund started by The Edge and others to provide relief to New Orleans' musicians. So far Music Rising has provided more than 2,000 people with instruments and aid, and has designs on helping churches and schools replace thousands more lost and damaged instruments.
If the song seems an esoteric choice for two multi-platinum acts, it is. The Skids had a brief but glorious run in the late '70s, but in the U.S. singer Stuart Adamson, who died in 2001, is better known as the leader of Big Country, the band he started after the Skids broke up. But while not many people know "The Saints Are Coming", the song fits the occasion. (Sample lyric: A drowning sorrow floods the deepest grief/ How long now, until a weather change condemns belief.) "It's a bit of mournful sentiment," says the Edge, "but we play it pretty fast, definitely under three minutes. This is playing with intent. We want to get to the point." And who plays lead guitar? "That's the great thing about punk rock," says The Edge, laughing. "It's anti the concept of lead guitar."
Now the reason I have posted this article is the Skids (and Big Country) are from my home town of Dunfermline. To me it's really amazing that 2 of the biggest bands in the world right now are covering such an obscure song. My local football (soccer) team Dunfermline Atheletic still runs onto the pitch to the sounds of "into the valley" by The Skids but thats not quite in the same league as MNF. It's just a crying shame that founder member of The Skids Stuart Adamson who later went on to bigger fame with Big Country won't see it, as he tragically commited suicide in 2001.
Ah well in the Superdome on Monday night U2 and Green Day will bring a little bit of Dunfermline to the NFL, I hope you all like it.