Nothing easy about it

NEW ORLEANS -- As floodwater raged past the overwhelmed levees, as stranded families clung to rooftops awaiting rescue workers to pluck them from the filthy muck that swamped this historic city, as armed soldiers struggled to quell the chaos that ensued at the storm-ravaged Superdome, the opportunities were seen from hundreds of miles away, even as the full fury of Katrina's wrath had not yet been realized.

At a time when the very survival of the city and its marooned residents was at stake, the future of its two major sports franchises wouldn't figure to register on the radar. But just days after the killer storm laid waste to New Orleans, an ESPN.com review of public documents reveals, civic leaders and power brokers in Oklahoma City and San Antonio frantically lined up to babysit the Hornets and Saints, respectively, with an eye on a long-term commitment if the Big Easy was unable to regain its big-city footing.

So as news cameras captured images of the hellhole left by Hurricane Katrina, as helicopters dropped massive sandbags to plug the breached levees and Humvees loaded with National Guardsmen rolled through the flooded streets, as New Orleans' frustrated and beleaguered mayor yelled to federal officials during a radio interview to "Get off your asses, and let's do something," the opportunity wasn't lost on those who realized the Saints and Hornets would be looking for places to play.

By the time an early-morning e-mail from NBA commissioner David Stern arrived in Oklahoma City mayor Mick Cornett's inbox on Sept. 3 -- "mayor mick--if you are checing [sic] e-mails, please give me a call ..." -- only five days had passed since Katrina wreaked her destruction across the Gulf Coast and the wheels had already been set in motion to relocate the teams, if only temporarily. There was little time, if any, wasted by the city officials in Oklahoma City and San Antonio, who moved quickly to fill their own empty sports venues while auditioning for major league brass.

Now, six months after the worst natural disaster in American history, as the Hornets return to New Orleans for a belated cameo appearance Wednesday night against the Los Angeles Lakers and the Saints prepare to head back to the Superdome next season, the long-term viability of the franchises is as up in the air as the New Orleans of tomorrow, despite calming words and financial commitments from league officials.

Ray Nagin, New Orleans' mayor, and other local politicians cast the survival of the teams as critical in the task to remake a major American city. Perhaps in a more realistic tone, sports industry leaders question whether New Orleans, a borderline professional sports town in the days before Katrina, can regain the population base and corporate muscle needed to support NBA and NFL franchises.

Even before the storm, season-ticket sales for the Saints had dipped to about 35,000. The Hornets were the NBA's worst draw last season. And New Orleans, after having played host to nine Super Bowls, had fallen out of the rotation for the NFL's mega event.

Officials from New Orleans to the statehouse in Baton Rouge just hope league officials are true to their word in realizing recovery won't be a one- or two-year deal. In the case of the Hornets, the NBA and Louisiana officials agreed to push back the club's return and play the bulk of the schedule in Oklahoma City through the 2006-07 season.

"Listen, there is no secret that both the NBA and NFL are providing us with ample opportunity to have a better projection of what the future is going to look like," said Tim Coulin, chairman of the state-run Louisiana Superdome and Exposition District, which manages the Superdome and New Orleans Arena. "It's obviously no different than any other business that has concerns over the repopulation. All we have asked for is the opportunity. And they understand because they have seen the magnitude of the disaster."

Of course, there are civic leaders far and wide who would grab the teams in a heartbeat. The Los Angeles market eventually will become home to another NFL club. Kansas City, which next year will debut a 20,000-seat downtown arena, is eager to become host of an NBA team. And Oklahoma City and San Antonio clearly have an alluring eye out for the Hornets and Saints.

Just take a behind-the-scenes look at the provincial boosterism and political wrangling that went into becoming the home away from home for the New Orleans teams, if for only three NFL games in San Antonio or, in the case of Oklahoma City, two NBA seasons.

"Welcome to Oklahoma!"

For the better part of a decade, Oklahoma City officials pestered Stern in pursuit of an NBA franchise. They'd put out feelers for an NHL club, too. Stern liked the mayor and the city's business leaders he'd come to know, but nothing materialized. So the debt-free downtown Ford Center sat dark, save for minor league hockey games and a variety of special events.

Then Katrina blew through New Orleans, and folks back in Oklahoma finally had a shot, if only a tryout.

In a Sept. 2 e-mail to Stern, Cornett -- the Oklahoma City mayor -- carefully assured the commissioner that he wasn't responsible for tipping off the national media to his city's interest, then declared "we stand ready" if Hornets games needed to be relocated. The mayor further thanked Stern for a conversation the two engaged in a day earlier -- just three days after Katrina.

"They were clearly a perfect waiting city that had a great understanding of tragedy," Stern recently described Oklahoma City to ESPN.com. "So, they are very respectful, and very able to move fast, as well."

In subsequent exchanges over the next 10 days, as well as presumably in a Sept. 9 meeting, Cornett pitched the financial wherewithal of Oklahoma City, advising Stern in an electronic message that three of the world's largest energy companies are based in the city. "Have you seen the price of oil and natural gas?" Cornett asked the NBA boss.

Hornets owner George Shinn told ESPN he was clueless about Oklahoma City until being tipped off by Stern himself. "David suggested Oklahoma City, and my first reaction honestly was, 'Oklahoma where?' " Shinn recalled.

Ultimately, Oklahoma City promised to house team employees and furnish office space for 100 employees, as well as guarantee to cover the difference up to $10 million if the team's gross revenues failed to reach $40 million, which was 5 percent more than it attained last season in New Orleans. That kicker likely won't come into play because club officials project the Hornets to turn a profit in their new digs, unlike during their 2004-05 season in the New Orleans Arena.

"Welcome to Oklahoma!" began a letter from Gov. Brad Henry to Shinn in which Henry promised to support legislation exempting Hornets tickets from Oklahoma sales tax.

Once the deal was swiftly executed and the national media gathered in town, Mayor Cornett, an old TV sports anchor, sat behind his desk at city hall and reviewed a series of talking points crafted by a local public relations firm, The Gooden Group. It was about the right spin, advancing the major league message while not coming off as a cold, heartless franchise raider. And letting it be known Oklahoma was doing its part to welcome Katrina evacuees.

It spelled out detailed points for the mayor to hit on, like:

• "OKC experienced its own tragedies," a reference to the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in 1995. "... We know what New Orleans is going through at this time."

• "Talk about how the rapid development of the [Hornets] agreement speaks volume for the city's agility to respond to significant opportunities."

• "Will Oklahoma City land a permanent NBA team? While time will eventually tell, the business community certainly has used this unique opportunity to unequivocally demonstrate it has the capabilities to move OKC to top of the NBA preferred list of expansion cities when the time comes."

Cornett routinely stuck to the script in articles that would appear in a number of major newspapers from Los Angeles to Philadelphia, as well as a segment of ESPN's "Outside the Lines." Never was the mayor more on point than when he told The Denver Post: "The NBA decides where the Hornets play. If they can't return, they have a place to play. But we are a city that also experienced disaster 10 years ago and was in disappointing straits. So, we're highly sensitive to what the people of the Gulf Coast are going through."

More than 500 miles west of New Orleans, San Antonio civic leaders were doing their own flirtatious dance with Saints owner Tom Benson -- one far less appreciated by those paying attention back home. Benson created his own PR disaster by openly chatting up San Antonio and its franchise-hungry mayor, Phil Hardberger, and already had been labeled an "old crybaby" by some in the New Orleans business community for repeated threats to take his NFL franchise to greener pastures.

After his nomadic team played on the LSU campus in early November, Benson got into it with a group of fans leaving Tiger Stadium, and later claimed in an e-mail to NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue that he and his family members "could have all been severely injured or killed." Eyewitnesses said the unpopular owner was never in danger.

Tagliabue later indirectly criticized Benson's flirtations with San Antonio, while stepping up as an ally for New Orleans with his call to market the team regionally and suggesting the Saints rework their Superdome lease. At an Oct. 30 news conference before the Saints took the Tiger Stadium field, the NFL commissioner put Benson on notice, saying, "Teams are not franchised as free agents to run around the country and play wherever they want to play. Under our league policies, owners are not supposed to be talking about relocating their team during a season."

Benson previously drew the ire of Nagin, the beleaguered New Orleans mayor, after it was reported that the Saints owner had been working with San Antonio officials to relocate permanently to the Texas city, where he has a home and car dealerships. Nagin told ESPN.com recently, "Opportunities present themselves all the time. And those mayors are helping out, but they're also, out of the corner of their eyes, looking at this as a potential permanent situation for their city. Every city that does not have an NFL or NBA franchise would love to have one. So, I understand the realities."

In the case of the Saints, the NFL team fattened the San Antonio coffers -- even if the stay proved temporary -- while folks in New Orleans were hunkered down, waiting for federal assistance. Speaking at a local auto dealers luncheon in the fall, Mayor Hardberger estimated the three NFL games in the Alamodome had an almost $25 million economic impact on his city. He also claimed his city received $6 million in free media exposure.

As for the mayor, he received some "very, very nice Saints cuff links" from his city's director of convention facilities, Michael Sawaya -- according to an Oct. 6 e-mail he sent the director.

After the Alamodome sold out for the Oct. 16 game between the Saints and Atlanta Falcons, Hardberger was provided with his own talking points, which were prepared for his monthly box luncheon. Included in the draft, which was obtained by ESPN.com, were the following nuggets:

• "I think we've proven wrong anyone who doubted whether San Antonio is an NFL city."

• "Commissioner Paul Tagliabue doesn't want (the Saints) here in San Antonio again because he doesn't want them to be successful here and decide to stay for good."

The mayor concedes now that his plans to bring the NFL to San Antonio could be put on hold if the baseball Marlins land in South Texas. Still, he left no doubt about his preference: "If I had the choice of a professional football team or a professional baseball team, I would take football."

"We're giving [the Saints] $180 million over 10 years to stay here?"

In the wake of Katrina, New Orleans' downtown and its tourist lure, the French Quarter, slowly have come alive. But of the 480,000 residents who called New Orleans home before the storm, barely a third have returned. Scattered banks of traffic signals remain dark, producing dangerous four-way stops and snarled traffic. The Hyatt Regency that towers not far from the Superdome is still closed. The same is true of many nearby businesses and a boarded-up shopping mall.

The area around the Superdome and New Orleans Arena is desolate and nearly abandoned. Weeds have begun to creep through cracks in the sidewalk. Inside the basketball arena, the locker rooms that were flooded are being rebuilt -- part of an estimated $10 million repair bill.

Across the street, the Superdome -- at one point home to 25,000 evacuees -- is undergoing $139 million in repairs to get it ready for the Sept. 24 return home of the Saints. Water-damaged Sheetrock is being torn from suites. The soiled playing surface needs replacement. Mold is being removed from the seats and from every nook and cranny. The steel decking on the roof needs replacing, at a cost of about $30 million.

Many rooms at downtown hotels are still occupied by storm victims, insurance adjusters and others connected with Katrina's recovery. Hospitality industry workers are cordial enough, but service is slow even by local standards. Fewer than half the city's food establishments have reopened. Workers are a scarce commodity, with the work force shriveled to a third of its pre-Katrina size, in part because of the dearth of affordable housing.

These nights, a stroll down Bourbon Street proves uneventful and out of synch. Music blares into the street, but a glance inside finds many of the clubs and daiquiri bars nearly empty.

Strip joints such as Larry Flynt's Hustler Club are closing early. A doorman says the pace will quicken when, and if, the Saints and convention business return.

A vendor hawking flowers on a quiet street corner says of business: "It stinks."

Down the block at Bourbon Teez, among the souvenir shops catering to tourists, hang a smattering of thin, three-for-$20 T-shirts with not-so-subtle reminders of the post-Katrina angst. Messages like:

• FEMA ... The New Four Letter "F" Word
• Make Levees ... Not War
• Semi-Sweet and a Little Nuts ... Ray Nagin and the Chocolate City

Over on Poydras Street, some 10 blocks from the Superdome, Jerry Amato recently sat inside the door of Mother's Restaurant, a downtown Crescent City landmark, as the noontime lunch crowd steadily filtered in. Amato returned a month after the storm to find the 82nd Airborne patrolling the streets outside his place. A flattened, burned-out car sat curbside just outside the front door. It wasn't until a last-minute spruce-up of the area just before Mardi Gras that the wreckage finally had been cleared.

Crammed in the parking lot alongside Mother's are nine white trailers, one man's solution to the worker shortage. In them, Amato houses cooks and waitstaff until permanent homes can be found.

Business isn't what it used to be, he says, but by post-Katrina standards, his place is hopping.

As for what the city's two sports franchises mean to his and other nearby businesses, Amato suggests the Hornets wouldn't be missed if they never returned. The Saints are another story. They've become a part of the local fabric and draw huge crowds on football weekends. A fair number of fans come from out of town. But like others about town, Amato opines that the future of the Saints shouldn't rank high on what is now an enormous agenda.

"Even before the hurricane, we had issues with schools in this state," said the squat, stocky figure with a scruffy gray beard. "We had people who were coming out of school totally uneducated. And we're giving [the Saints] $180 million over 10 years to stay here? There were a lot of people who just couldn't understand why we had to give a person in business such a big amount of money.

"Now, we're looking at sections of the city that may never come back. So who cares about sports teams? You got three- and four-mile areas in the Lower Ninth Ward that are totally destroyed. And people in this country don't understand how massive this is. These people don't have the resources to come back. I was on the road for three weeks [after the storm], and it's tough financially, and I make a nice living."

On a recent sunny afternoon, Amato left his business for an hour to drive down to the hardest-hit areas, just four or five miles from the Superdome and New Orleans Arena. Down St. Claude Avenue and off to the left sat block after block of houses leveled or battered by surging water, and cars still resting on top of each other in some front yards.

The place resembles a war zone, with mounds of debris, decimated homes as far as the eye can see. Nobody lives here anymore. It's eerily still.

"Listen, it's so screwed up. There are no birds," Amato said as he lowered the window of his SUV to the sound of silence. "Nothing. No food for them."

Despite the bleak scene, Mayor Nagin, who faces a tough election late next month, is bent on putting a rosy spin on the city's future. The New Orleans population should touch 300,000 by year's end, he suggests, with 90 percent of the 1.3 million pre-Katrina residents returning to the greater metro area. Displaced folks are, in his perhaps overly optimistic words, "clamoring to get back."

Construction-related activity should be a boon to the city, he adds, predicting almost $100 billion to be spent over the next five to seven years.

"This economy should be strong enough to support those franchises," Nagin said. "They are absolutely critical. The Saints franchise has been here for 30-plus years. It is part of the culture, if you will. It looks as though we're going to have a real significant shot at retaining them. I think it is good for the psyche of the community, also."

These days, rightly or wrongly, the ability of a city to attract pro sports franchises validates its arrival. The Saints put New Orleans among the bottom rung of those cities, but it was that second franchise, the Hornets, that civic leaders believe brought real bragging rights. A second franchise puts New Orleans one up on places like Sacramento, Portland and Memphis.

The Big Easy would be Birmingham if both franchises were to leave tomorrow.

"In America today, the existence of professional sports brands a city as a first-class city," said former New Orleans mayor Marc Morial, now president of the National Urban League. "The cities that have sports franchises have reputations as being elite communities. One of the best examples might be Nashville, which only in the last 10 years picked up pro football and the hockey team. What has happened to Nashville is that their profile has risen. They have been able to relocate a number of corporate headquarters. I'm not going to say the two go hand in hand, but certainly it is directional.

"I thought that when the Hornets moved to New Orleans in 2002, as I was leaving office, it was an endorsement of the direction of the city. People don't move sports franchises to cities that are in decline. They move sports franchises to cities that are on the rise.

"Now, that community should be given a chance to prove that they can continue to support the teams. You have an unusual situation in New Orleans because you had the greatest natural disaster in American history. And it is going to take time. It may take two or three years before ticket sales and corporate sponsorships get back at their pre-Katrina levels."

Or they might never return fully.

"There will be a team one way or the other in Oklahoma City"

Repopulation of the city is critical for the health of its sports teams. So, too, the vibrant return of corporations with the cash to lease suites and sign sponsorships deals. But if the tourism and convention industry fails to flourish again, and early signs are dubious, experts predict it will be the death blow to the franchises, if not the city.

There is a simple reason: The major revenue stream that supports the Hornets, and to some extent the Saints -- as well as the operations of the facilities, thus allowing lucrative lease arrangements for the teams -- is funded by a 5 percent hotel/motel tax in New Orleans and neighboring Jefferson Parish. Sixty percent of the budget for the Louisiana Stadium and Exposition District, the state body that oversees the facilities and a signatory on the leases, is derived from the hotel tax.

Already, tax estimates for the fiscal year ending June 30 are projected at $22.7 million, dramatically off the $42.1 million generated by tourists last year. The LSED slashed its operating budget and laid off 151 employees in advance, but where it potentially gets dicey is if the hospitality tax money doesn't pick up after the teams return.

In the case of the Saints, for instance, a new lease signed in 2001 entitles them to inducement payments from the state totaling $186.5 million through the 2010 season -- including $20 million next season. The payment from this past season is a modest $3.3 million because only two preseason games were played in the Superdome. The Hornets have inducements based on attendance, although they're far less lucrative than what the Saints have.

"Over time, the ability of the state to be able to continue its obligations under that lease are going to require that the hospitality industry come back strong," said Morial, the former mayor. "Which I think is possible, because the infrastructure of the hospitality industry was not substantially damaged by Katrina. The tough side is that the housing market, which supported the workers that they need, was substantially damaged."

Compounding the problem are the horrific images of suffering that were beamed worldwide in the weeks after Katrina, hardly a selling point for a city where the No. 1 industry is tourism. The city's major convention center remains closed till June. And the turnout for the first Mardi Gras since Hurricane Katrina was smaller than normal -- an estimated 350,000 this year, compared with the usual 1 million, according to the New Orleans Tourism Marketing Corp.

"Let's be honest, it is a tourist-based economy," said Sal Galatioto, who brokers franchise sales through his New York-based Galatioto Sports Partners. "And the port is incredibly important there, but it is not a real diversified economy. There's not a lot of corporate headquarters. It is what it is.

"It is a tough situation. No one expected this to happen, so it takes a little time for people to reformulate their thoughts and move forward on a thoughtful basis. Look, it is not as if it was a huge market before. And now, it depends on your view of what you think will happen. Some people think the city is going to come back in better shape than it was. We'll see."

In the meantime, the parties are posturing and biding time. While the Hornets have approval to stay in Oklahoma City through the 2006-07 season, they are playing three games this month in New Orleans and another six next season. Stern, the NBA boss, described the half-dozen games against Western Conference teams as a "pretty good test case."

"Right now, we're operating on the assumption that the team is returning in 2007-2008," Stern said. "I think that that will pretty much reveal itself by this time next year -- the All-Star Game in Las Vegas."

The Hornets have proven fabulously successful in their new, larger digs, averaging 18,651 through 26 home games -- including 14 sellouts. Last year in New Orleans, the Hornets posted a franchise-worst record and saw attendance plummet to 14,221 -- last in the league.

Club officials have resumed efforts to sell equity shares in the franchise, a process that began in New Orleans after minority owner Ray Woolridge sold back his interest to Shinn last year. Hornets president Paul Mott said that only about 60 percent of the New Orleanians who initially expressed interest continue to be engaged in talks. At the same time, potential investors are being sought in Oklahoma and Mott expressed hope that the club would be able to bring people before the NBA for approval this summer.

Stern said he was unfamiliar with the potential partnership sale, but offered his strongest endorsement yet of Oklahoma City's future as an NBA city. "I don't know what time frame to put on it," the commissioner said. "But yes, I would say there will be a team one way or the other in Oklahoma City."

"It was a dead loser"

Based on the contract signed four years ago when the Hornets relocated from Charlotte, it appears they'd have an epic legal tussle if they were to try bolting New Orleans. The contract runs through 2010 and contains no option allowing the Hornets to terminate the agreement.

Of course, if the New Orleans population fails to come back in the expected numbers, legal experts suggest that the sports teams could argue to void the contracts because the circumstances upon which they are based have changed so fundamentally. At this point, however, no one is talking legal action.

The Saints are a considerably more fluid case. The deal signed in 2001 allowed them a one-time out after the 2005 season, and before March 31 this year, if they anted up an $81 million exit fee. After Katrina, the Saints agreed to push the date back a year, and there's some speculation it could be delayed yet another year or two, largely because the NFL would not want to be perceived as failing to give the city a fair shot to recover.

Ultimately, it will be the leagues' commissioners -- Tagliabue and Stern -- who make the decision whether to bail on New Orleans. The feeling in some quarters is that Benson might have been on a permanent path to San Antonio had Tagliabue not stepped in and committed the league to New Orleans, at least for the time being. Benson did not respond to multiple interview requests by ESPN.com.

"The league constitution requires that Benson follow the league bylaws, so he has few options," said Gary Roberts, deputy dean of the Tulane University law school, located in New Orleans. "I cannot see Tom Benson beating Paul Tagliabue in a lawsuit. Frankly, if Benson thought he could win a lawsuit against the league, he would have brought it this year. He couldn't. It was a dead loser.

"So, he basically came crawling back with his tail between his legs because Tagliabue told him to. And I think the league is going to continue to maintain that position through next year. What they do two or three years down the road, I don't know."

Long term, the Saints still are considered the much stronger New Orleans franchise -- for a lot of reasons. Not only do they have three decades of history on their side but they're looking to draw for only eight regular-season games -- plus two in the preseason -- as opposed to 44 NBA dates, a fair number falling on weeknights. Saints officials reported last week that season-ticket renewals are nearly four times what they were a year ago, with 20,000 to 25,000 deposits. The encouraging news is linked to many ticket holders having money remaining in their accounts because of the cancellation of the New Orleans games last season, as well as reduced prices on some seats.

The real clincher is that Benson can bank on -- before next season kicks off -- more than $100 million in revenue sharing from the NFL, the bulk coming from national broadcast partner agreements. The NBA revenue sharing package projects to be about a third of that.

That hasn't swayed Benson from talking up other potential markets in better times or extracting huge financial concessions from Louisiana politicians. So where might he threaten to leave for next? His choice of San Antonio might not pass muster with NFL hierarchy because of the city's population base and its own dearth of corporate headquarters, plus the fact that it would be a third team in Texas.

Of course, the NFL continually leverages the Los Angeles market, and it's just a matter of time before someone is given the OK to relocate. Some have projected the Saints heading way west if all fails in New Orleans. Or might NFL owners keep the L.A. slot warm for an expansion franchise, knowing a new team would bring a projected $1 billion expansion fee?

More likely, the NFL will stay the course in New Orleans for two or three years, doing the right thing for all the PR reasons. If a stadium deal is done in L.A. by then, and if it should become obvious New Orleans can't sustain an NFL franchise, the Saints loom as a perfect candidate to move there.

Now, it's just a speculative game, projecting how much of the population will find its way back to the Big Easy, what kind of jobs they'll return to and whether the tourism industry can drive the local economy again. It'll all unfold through time, whether it's three, four or five years down the road.

"This city needs to start thinking about how it is going to remake itself without major league professional sports franchises, because I find it hard to believe that four, five, six years from now that those teams are going to be here," warned Roberts, the Tulane sports law expert. "You look around the country, and there are fine midsize cities that don't have a lot of major sports that are quite nice places to live. I think we can get through it, survive and do very well. But the city's official position is 'No, we need them.' I don't blame them. The sports franchises are assets, and if we can keep them, it is to our benefit. But I'm not sure we are going to keep them, so we might as well get beyond that and start thinking about how we're going to rebuild the city without them."

If so, as sports cities go, New Orleans will go down as home of the Triple-A Zephyrs. Or Birmingham with a whole lot of jazz.

Mike Fish is an investigative reporter for ESPN.com. He can be reached michaeljfish@gmail.com.