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The homecoming game that likely changed the history of the Saints organization

A conversation on the sidelines before the first game in the Superdome following Hurricane Katrina likely sealed the future of the Saints in New Orleans
Updated: Oct. 4, 2021 at 10:00 PM CDT
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NEW ORLEANS (WVUE) - While the Saints latest post-hurricane homecoming did not end with a win like they had envisioned, it was the homecoming game after Hurricane Katrina that likely sealed the Saints’ future in New Orleans for many years.

A conversation on the sideline of the team’s first game in the Superdome since Hurricane Katrina between the team president and the state’s lead negotiator changed the relations between the franchise and ended years of an adversarial relationship between the two entities.

Read more from our partner in this story, NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune’s Jeff Duncan: The Saints and Superdome officials have a contentious history. Here’s how it was repaired.

Years prior to that moment, the Saints and the state were at odds over the team’s future in New Orleans.

“I know these numbers inside and out,” said then-Saints owner Tom Benson in 2001. “I’ve lived with them, for 16 years I lived with them. I was chairman of the Finance Committee for ten years. You don’t think I don’t know numbers? I guarantee you I know these numbers I know them backwards and sideways. And I’m gonna tell you right now, the state’s mixed up. And they didn’t do what they said we were going to do.”

After Hurricane Katrina made landfall in 2005 and with concerns the team may leave the city, the Saints brand was possibly at its lowest point. Fans did not trust the front office and left messages of their faithlessness on flooded throwaways, like refrigerators.

“[Our brand] was horrible, particularly during the Katrina years, absolutely,” Saints President Dennis Lauscha said.

But on that homecoming night, one that signified the resiliency and rebirth of a Katrina-damaged region, a conversation as the game kicked off between Lauscha and the state’s lead negotiator, Doug Thornton, changed the relations between the franchise and the State of Louisiana and helped lock the team up long-term in New Orleans.

“What changed was after Katrina, we realized that if we were going to be successful then we had to forge a partnership,” Thornton said, recalling the moment near the thirty-yard line. “We talked about that right here.”

The two spoke to FOX 8′s Lee Zurik on the same spot where the conversation took place in 2006.

“I think we said that night, hey, look, we have to change things, we have to start to trust each other,” Lauscha said. “We have to, you know, you have to do a good job of listening to what my needs are, and conversely, I have to listen to you and what your needs are and what the state’s needs are.”

Lauscha said it was a turning point on the field and off the field on the business side of the organization. Parts of that change in business strategy included giving back to the community. Since 2007, the Gayle and Tom Benson Foundation has given or pledged more than $100 Million in donations across our area.

“You know, when I met Tom Benson he gave and not to the degree that we started giving, but I think overall after we were married and he got to know me, he realized that that was the way to go,” Gayle Benson said.

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The Saints also gave in a little in negotiations with the state. The team is not necessarily earning less money now, but they need to perform better on the field to earn it.

The pre-Katrina Saints lease was a bad one for Louisiana taxpayers. Each year, the state wrote Tom Benson a multi-million dollar check, some years approaching $24 Million. In ten years, Benson received $145 Million in taxpayer money. But after that 2006 sideline conversation, the state and Saints eventually signed a new lease, with the state ending the direct subsidy and instead investing in the Superdome, to give the Saints more revenue earning opportunities.

The Saints now have more motivation to fill the stands, the more successful the team is on the field likely equates to more money being earned. The Saints no longer receive a straight check from taxpayers, they generate revenue from naming rights of the Superdome, concessions, parking, owning Benson Tower and upgraded suites and club seats.

We spoke to three sports industry experts over the past six months, they all say the Saints have a favorable deal, but it’s not necessarily the best in the league. The deal is structured to get the Saints in the middle of the pack in terms of revenue, between 12th and 15th in the league every year.

“In order for us to be successful, we have to perform -- it goes back to how we started this -- this is about trust, right? This is about the state is trusting us with the deal that they are giving us and they have to trust us that we will perform as best as we can,” Lauscha said. “And we take that very seriously. And so the better we perform, the more resources we have to put back into the team, and we have more resources to put back into the community.”

Typically, an NFL team’s greatest leverage in negotiations is the threat to move elsewhere. The Saints did that prior to 2006, but now are publicly committing to the city and state through Gayle Benson’s succession plan that they will be here long-term.

“My argument to the state is look, help me. Let’s lock this thing up,” Lauscha said. “I am looking at the long-term here I am looking at signing a deal that gets us to 2035. I’m looking at a naming rights deal that’s going to lock this name after 20 years. Again, we are basically doing everything we can to show whoever the next owner is how financially viable this can be.”

The two sides have come a long way from then-owner Tom Benson calling the state’s offer a ‘Mickey Mouse deal’ to coming to the compromise in 2006 on the sidelines of the Superdome. After that sideline huddle between the two sides, Lauscha said he briefed his boss, Tom Benson, who he said pushed for the meeting, realizing things needed to change.

“He [Tom Benson] said, ‘I saw you talking to Doug, what’s going on?’ And I said to him, I said, look, I think things are gonna be pretty good. And I explained to him how we felt he was very happy. Very happy. I said I think we’re gonna be alright,” Lauscha said. “Things have been very good since then, yeah, things have been all right.”

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