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Tagliabue, state working to keep Saints in Louisiana

BATON ROUGE, La. -- While the New Orleans Saints played their first game of the season in Louisiana on Sunday, state officials scrambled to make sure it wouldn't be one of the last.

NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue said he was committed to keeping the team in New Orleans after meeting with team owner Tom Benson, Gov. Kathleen Blanco and other officials.

"The Saints are Louisiana's team and have been since the late '60s when my predecessor Pete Rozelle welcomed them to the league as New Orleans' team and Louisiana's team," Tagliabue said. "Our focus continues to be on having the Saints in Louisiana."

Tagliabue dismissed rumors that the Saints were headed to Los Angeles or elsewhere.

"I think the reports this week about the longterm landing spot being Los Angeles were nonsensical," Tagliabue said. "L.A. has been the landing spot for the Indianapolis Colts, the Arizona Cardinals, the Seattle Seahawks, the Minnesota Vikings and any other number of teams. And the last time I looked, they were all operating in their communities and L.A. is off the radar screen."

The Saints moved operations to San Antonio after Hurricane Katrina devastated the city and the Louisiana Superdome. San Antonio mayor Phil Hardberger has lobbied hard to keep the Saints there and believes Benson wants to stay in the city as well.

Tagliabue pointed out that under NFL guidelines, Benson is prohibited from talking about moving his team during the season. Still, Benson has made some moves that appear to back up Hardberger's contention and has come under fire from Saints fans.

Benson's attorneys sent a letter to state and federal officials Oct. 11, claiming that damages to the team's training facility while it was used by federal agencies following the hurricane "effectively terminated" the club's lease for the building. State officials toured the building this week and responded in a letter Friday to Benson that the facility suffered minimal damage and is ready to use.

Tagliabue appointed eight team owners to a New Orleans Advisory Committee, which is to help make decisions about the franchise's future. He also said the NFL could provide financial assistance to the Saints on a temporary basis.

"I'm very encouraged by the messages I got," Blanco said after the meetings.

The Superdome, where the Saints normally play their home games, had millions of dollars in damage from the hurricane and during its use as an emergency shelter for 25,000 storm victims. Doug Thornton, regional vice president for the company that manages the Dome, said repairs are underway and the building might be available for use by mid-October 2006.

LSU would also make Tiger Stadium available for Saints games next season, LSU chancellor Sean O'Keefe said.

"We really are committed to being as supportive to the state as we can to work through a very, very challenging time," O'Keefe said.

The Saints played their first "home" game this season in New York against the Giants. Since then they have played two home games in San Antonio. Sunday was the first of three games to be played in Baton Rouge on LSU's field.

"We are also focused in a preliminary way on the 2006 season," Tagliabue said.

He said it looks as though "interim or temporary arrangements" will be featured in the Saints' playing schedule next year. He said it is uncertain if those arrangements would be similar to this year or different.

The big question is how New Orleans could support the Saints.

New Orleans mayor Ray Nagin believes the city's population, which was 460,000 before the hurricane, will quickly rise to 250,000 and be back above 450,000 in three years. But many returnees face major obstacles rebuilding homes and businesses.

"I think what we need to do is recognize that the people of this region and the businesses of this region and the governmental agencies of this region have so many priorities that rebuilding the Saints and recommitting the Saints to Louisiana is just one of those priorities," Tagliabue said.

In a letter this month to the Saints, state officials said they are willing to discuss adding enhancements to the Superdome to help boost team profits. Although he envisioned the Saints remaining in New Orleans, Tagliabue said they needed to become more of a Louisiana or even a regional team. The state and Saints need to take a fresh look at the team's deal with Louisiana, Tagliabue said.

Efforts to rewrite the deal worked out during the former governor's administration were called off before the season and were slated to begin again in January. Blanco wanted a new agreement that would relieve Louisiana of some of the financial burden the current arrangement carries -- including $186 million in payments over 10 years.