Thursday, April 28, 2005

See ya, Saints

Something that had been gathering steam to me over the last year or so became crystal clear this morning.

The New Orleans Saints are headed to Los Angeles.

It might not happen tonight, or tomorrow, or this year, or the next, but within the next four years I predict that the NFL will make the move it desires and return a franchise to Los Angeles. LA is the second-largest media market in the country, and an NFL team there means mucho when you're talking TV and advertising revenue.

The NFL has gone on record several times over the last 18 months or so that it strongly desires to get a franchise in LA before the end of the decade. (In other words, it will happen.) There's no way NFL owners will allow further expansion for the near future, for at least two reasons. One, the talent can only spread around so much before the game level completely falls off. And two, 32 teams divides up nicely in terms of divisions, scheduling, etc. So where does that leave things?

Sometime last season I read and heard that there were three franchises being eyed for a move to LA: the Minnesota Vikings, Indianapolis Colts, and New Orleans Saints. Since then, the Vikings have found themselves a new owner, the Colts have a new stadium deal that has been approved by the voters, and the Saints...let's just say things don't look good for the Crescent City. Unless, of course, the Vikings' new owner (who is from Phoenix, I believe) decides to move his new team closer to home. That just doesn't seem that likely to me.

Which brings me to this: Tom Benson knows what kind of leverage he has with the state of Louisiana. Ex-governor Mike Foster made a boneheaded deal and salted away taxpayer funds to line Benson's pockets. It's the sweetest of sweetheart deals for Benson, and because it's a contract with the state, he's in no hurry to renegotiate. Kudos to Governor Kathleen Blanco for making attempts in vain to help the state's citizens from sacrificing much-needed money, but Benson's announcement today that he has cut off negotiations with Blanco says far more than its text.

It sends a message that he will milk that deal for all it's worth, then either sell the team for a tremendous profit (he paid $70M for it in the mid-1980s, and can stand to make over $900M in a sale), or let the NFL pay the state-imposed penalty after next season and get the team to Los Angeles.

In either case, it's the most viable option for the NFL to achieve its ultimate goal of having a franchise located in Los Angeles. And, after today, it's painfully clear now more than ever that Benson will take full advantage of his situation before leaving the state in the lurch.

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