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It's All Negotiable



Gov. Kathleen Blanco's offer to the New Orleans Saints to keep the team in town is quickly taking shape, and there already appears to be a consensus building among local lawmakers in support of the deal and possible tax increases to pay for it. The real question is whether it will be good enough for Saints owner Tom Benson.

Nothing is official yet, but the outlines of a proposal emerged last week. The core elements of the deal look like this:

• The state and the Saints will share the costs of renovating the Superdome.

Right now, the price tag is somewhere around $168 million -- but that's just the unofficial estimate. The big issue here is whether, and how much, Benson is willing to contribute. In prior years, the Saints had offered to put up $40 million toward dome renovations. That should be a minimum in the governor's discussions with Benson. The team also offered to put up $100 million toward a new stadium. If Blanco can get Benson to share the cost of dome renovations, the final number should be something between $40 million and $100 million.

The state would reduce, and then eliminate, its annual subsidy paid directly to the Saints.

This was a bad idea to begin with, but Gov. Mike Foster let that genie out of the bottle in the state's current deal with the Saints. Now it's up to Blanco to put the genie back in. On the surface it sounds impossible -- Why would Benson give up free money? -- but it shouldn't be as difficult as it looks. Dome renovations won't start until 2006 (at the earliest), so the team has a good argument for keeping the payments in place until then. While the dome is being renovated, Benson can reasonably expect some compensation for the inconvenience of having to play games somewhere else -- if renovations require that. However, a renovated dome will contain additional premium seating, more luxury suites, more concession areas, and possibly a food court -- all of which will generate substantial additional revenue to the Saints. In exchange for that increased revenue (which the team must earn rather than simply collect as a subsidy), the team should forfeit the remaining direct subsidies.

Another possibility, which does not preclude the scenario just described, is that the team would give up some of its remaining subsidy payments as its contributions toward dome renovations. Thus, instead of writing a check to the state, Benson could simply forego some subsidy payments, with the money going to dome renovations instead of to the team. In the short run, Benson can reasonably demand full payment of the 2005 subsidy, and that shouldn't be a problem for the state. Beyond that, it's all negotiable.

The Saints will have the opportunity to earn much more in revenue than the team currently receives in subsidies.

This is crucial. The Superdome renovations must produce an arena that not only works as a football stadium, but it also has to be an NFL Super Store for fans. It has to produce additional premium seats, more luxury suites, more concession areas and probably a high-end food court -- with the Saints getting all the revenues those additions generate. Most of all, the additional revenue must equal or exceed what the state is currently paying the Saints in direct subsidies, otherwise the deal won't work for Benson.

The Saints will agree to stay in New Orleans past 2020 -- with no options to leave.

Hey, if the money's right, why should Benson or his heirs want to leave? No other city in the world would support a team that consistently loses. The key for the state is removing any language that would allow the team to break the lease.

There is one more question, of course: How will the state pay for it all?

That's a separate issue for Blanco, but she appears to be lining up support among local and regional lawmakers for increased taxes on hotel rooms, car rentals, and Superdome and Arena tickets and concessions. The deal may also require issuing new bonds to refinance existing Superdome debt and to pay for the renovations. Once she gets to the point where architects, engineers and bond attorneys are making money, it's a good bet that a deal is close.

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