The images from New Orleans, Eastern Louisiana and Mississippi are spirit crushing, and they get worse by the hour. And while the present is the time for supporting the survivors, though work, donations and prayer, the NFL has a problem it cannot avoid, as much as it would like to:
The season's first weekend is eleven days away and the New Orleans Saints have lost their city.
While New Orleans will be rebuilt, nobody knows how completely it will resemble its old self, or how long the restoration will take. It is a minor detail in the light of the death and devastation, but one of the many losses could be pro football. The city was already 31st in total revenue and Saints owner Tom Benson was only months away from a battle with the state over a better compensation package. Rumors were emerging during the spring that the Saints might consider San Antonio -- where Benson is a major car dealer -- or Los Angeles as new destinations.
At some point in the near future, those rumors will re-emerge. For the moment, San Antonio is the Saints' new headquarters. The league has not decided where the team will play its season opener, but the latest reports suggest longer term thinking will be required. Mayor Ray Nagin said today the city would be uninhabitable for months.
The league has to decide whether it wants to turn the Saints into its version of the Montreal Expos, who spent two seasons in baseball limbo before relocating to Washington this year. San Antonio seems a good bet to get the team for 2005, given that most players want to stay as near New Orleans as possible. If the NFL feels this is the time to settle the Los Angeles issue, it could do so. But new L.A. mayor Antonio Villaraigosa told the league earlier this month the city would not be leveraged into spending public funds to build a new stadium. "My hope is that they are going to realize there are a lot of people who want a football team, but every year they are not here is one more year where people start to forget," the mayor said. It seems unlikely that L.A. would use Katrina as a pretext for moving the Saints west.
After everything the citizens of New Orleans have already endured, the Saints would be just the type of civic hub a recovering city could rally around. Given the NFL's appetite for cash, however, it does not appear the city could afford to keep the team. A strong business base is necessary in today's luxury-box driven world and nobody knows how much of New Orleans' commercial sector will relocate. Considering the P.R. hit the league would take (and make no mistake, this would be the NFL's worst move since the original Browns fled Cleveland in a huff) could the NFL contemplate moving the Saints permanently?