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Either Way, Benson Wins 

The New Orleans Saints have just won their biggest post-season victory in the history of the franchise.

In fact, the deal that Saints owner Tom Benson cut last week with Gov. Mike Foster may be sweeter than any Super Bowl ring -- at least, for Benson. The value of his team just went from roughly $400 million to about $600 million or more. Not bad for a team that was bought in 1985 for less than $75 million (also with a lot of help from the state, via former Gov. Edwin Edwards).

And this time next year, Benson may just be of a mind to cash in.

To understand how those numbers work, consider where the Saints were financially and where they are now, under the new deal.

Under the previous agreement, which for now is still in effect, the Saints were locked into the Superdome "as is" through the 2005 season. If they were to leave before 2018, they would have had to pay an exit penalty of up to $25 million.

Granted, the Saints made a case for an enhanced cash flow. New Orleans, as Foster noted, is the smallest (and poorest) NFL market, so the region probably has no choice but to "participate" financially.

But the new deal gives Benson both more cash flow and greatly increased sales value -- maybe even an incentive to sell in a year or two. Here's why:

Under the new deal, the Saints will get $12.5 million a year from the state -- guaranteed -- for the next two seasons, then $15 million for the following two seasons. That's an extra $40 million over three years. It should put the Saints at mid-level profitability among NFL teams. Not bad for the smallest and poorest market.

More important, the team's commitment to the Superdome (and New Orleans) is now two years shorter. The Saints can leave after the 2003 season if they don't like the recommendations of a "blue ribbon" committee that will examine the feasibility of a new stadium versus a refurbished Superdome. The committee has 18 months, until January 2003, to issue its report.

The truth is, a new stadium might not matter nearly as much now as it did a few weeks ago. If the state doesn't commit to build it, Benson (or a new owner) can move the team after the 2003 season -- two years earlier than under the previous agreement. The Saints thus will become a high-priced "free agent franchise" shopping for a new market and a new stadium in just 18 months.

Ah, but what if the committee recommends a new stadium and the state goes along with it? Again, the value of the team still goes way up, thanks to the new stadium (plus naming rights, concessions, luxury suites, etc.). Which, again, provides a nice incentive for Benson to sell.

Either way, Benson wins.

Now consider the fact that Benson is in his 70s. In a year or so, he may decide it's time to slow down a little. Maybe his doctor will suggest that he reduce his stress level.

Next thing you know, the Saints could be on the block -- at a greatly enhanced value.

Let's say somebody buys the team at that enhanced value and doesn't like the size of the market, or the state says "no" to a new stadium. How long will it take for a larger city to lure the Saints out of New Orleans?

Oh sure, there will be a higher exit penalty -- maybe $65 million after the 2003 season -- but it won't be big enough to keep the team in New Orleans.

Bottom line: the Saints were legally bound to stay here through 2005 under the old deal. Now they can bolt after the 2003 season.

I hope the above scenario never comes to pass. I hope Benson means it when he says he wants to keep the team in New Orleans.

But the numbers don't lie.

Meanwhile, what did the state get out of the deal?

Near as I can tell, about 18 months to work on the political and financial equivalent of a Hail Mary play.

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