Saints Will Stay In New Orleans


State officials and the New Orleans Saints have reached an ``agreement in principle'' to keep the team in New Orleans.

During each of the next two football seasons, the state will provide the Saints $12.5 million in guaranteed operating cash to assure the team's financial stability, said Steve Perry, the Gov. Mike Foster's chief of staff. The agreement calls for the governor, in the next two weeks, to assemble a committee to study the possibility of building a new stadium or completely re-engineering the Saints' current home, the Louisiana Superdome. The committee will report no later than Jan. 15, 2003.

Once an agreement on a new stadium or re-engineered dome is reached, the state will continue ``an escalating inducement package'' while the work on the new or improved home field is done. The agreement gives the Saints the right to abandon New Orleans by the 2004 season if the team believes the area's market has deteriorated to the point where it cannot make money here, and if no agreement is reached on the team's future home field. ``However, neither party believes this course of action will become a reality because the State of Louisiana is committed to stepping up its participation to keep our national Football League Team long term in the city of New Orleans,'' the two sides said in a joint news release.

Saints director of administration Arnold Fielkow did not want to discuss what the team's reaction would be if the blue-ribbon committee recommends against a new stadium. ``Today is a great day,'' Fielkow said. ``We ought not to speculate on what it might look like in 18 months. We agreed on a process we think makes sense and the state thinks make sense. We're confident a favorable report will come out of that study.''

``We are not guaranteeing ticket or suite sales. We're standing behind a certain level of income for the team. We've got the option of going to a broad range of sources to make that up and that's what we're going to do,'' said Perry.

Monday's meeting was scheduled after flare-ups two weeks ago among negotiators who have been meeting for five months to discuss ways to make the team more profitable and keep it in New Orleans.

Each side accused the other of breaking off negotiations and Saints owner Tom Benson said he was considering either moving the team to Mississippi or selling it. Even then, however, Benson made a concession.

In what he called his ``final offer'', he gave up on the demand that the state put up a new stadium in time for the 2006 season. Still, he wanted the state to guarantee the Saints an average $15 million in increased revenue for five years, with an agreement to study the feasibility of a new stadium.

That proposal also would have let the Saints out of their current Superdome lease for a $25 million penalty if the state did not promise by 2004 to begin work on a new stadium. That offer was the precursor to the agreement made Monday afternoon.