State see discussions as negotiating ploy

NEW ORLEANS -- State officials say they are not surprised by a report that New Orleans Saints owner Tom Benson is looking at San Antonio as a possible new home for the team, labeling the threat a bargaining tactic.

Benson recently cut off talks with the state about a new long-term agreement to keep the Saints in New Orleans until after the upcoming season.

"It doesn't surprise us at all that they will be rattling the saber a little bit to bring more tension to the situation," said
Doug Thornton, regional vice president of SMG, the company that
operates the Superdome. "This is not new. This is what NFL teams
In a story in Wednesday's editions of the San Antonio
Express-News, Stanley Rosenberg, Benson's attorney and a member of the team's board of directors, said the Saints' owner is interested in moving the team, possibly to San Antonio, his second home.

Rosenberg also met with representatives of New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson to discuss the possibility of the Saints' moving to Albuquerque, the newspaper reported.

Rosenberg, one of Benson's key negotiators, also said he has received several offers from outside interests to buy the team, including one for more than $1 billion.

When reached Wednesday at his office, Rosenberg declined to comment other than to confirm that the highest offer Benson has received for the team was "for more than $1.2 billion." The Saints also declined comment.

Gov. Kathleen Blanco said she wasn't surprised the Saints camp raised the possibility of relocation, but she said Louisiana has made a fair offer to Benson. She said she doubts the team can get a better offer elsewhere.

"I still think we offered a great deal to the Saints right now, to Mr. Benson in particular," Blanco said.

The Saints' current agreement, which runs through the 2010 season, includes an exit clause that lets the team leave Louisiana after this season by repaying the $81 million it received during the first four years of the deal. The state can opt out of the deal after the 2007 season.

"We're not going to give them a single legal leg to stand on that would allow the team to leave without paying a penalty," Blanco said. "It's hard for me to predict what their goals are."

The Saints called off negotiations after reviewing a state proposal focused on a $174 million Superdome renovation, with the Saints contributing $40 million, that would increase the team's ability to make money but also reduce the amount of guaranteed income from the state after the renovation is complete.

The state package includes $267 million in guaranteed money for the team, $134 million toward the Dome renovation and an estimated $336 million in additional revenue the Saints could earn after the renovations are complete.

Including the stadium renovation, the state estimates its proposal is worth $737 million from now through the 2025 season.

NFL spokesman Greg Aiello said the Saints have not applied for relocation, the first step in a lengthy procedural process required by the league to move a team. Any proposed relocation by a franchise requires the approval of 75 percent of NFL owners, or 24 of 32 teams.

"We expect the Saints' emphasis to continue to be to negotiate a deal with the state and honor their contract," Aiello said. "All teams, under league rules, must honor their stadium leases."