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New Orleans Saints to meet with LSU Tigers about hosting home games

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New Orleans Saints officials began discussions with LSU officials Tuesday about having the Saints play upcoming games at Tiger Stadium in Baton Rouge, Saints official Greg Bensel told ESPN's Adam Schefter.

"LSU has been gracious and enthusiastic regarding hosting our future games, and we very much appreciate their partnership," Bensel said. "We have also discussed the possibility of moving our home games to LSU with the NFL and they are aware of our exploring this option.

"Obviously, our overwhelming preference is to play our games in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome with partial fan attendance, but there has been no indication from the city on when, or if, this might be approved."

The NFL has also offered its support to the Saints, including an email sent earlier this month from commissioner Roger Goodell to New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell, who has repeatedly declined to allow the Saints to have limited-capacity fan attendance because of the coronavirus pandemic. A source confirmed to ESPN that NFL medical experts would be willing to meet with New Orleans officials as well.

NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy said the league has had "ongoing conversations with the Saints about LSU" and pointed out that there are 15 NFL teams that have been approved to host fans after Philadelphia announced its intention to do so Tuesday.

Currently, 15 teams have approval to host spectators from the general public at varying percentages of stadium capacity: Atlanta, Carolina, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Dallas, Denver, Houston, Indianapolis, Jacksonville, Kansas City, Miami, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Tampa Bay and Tennessee.

"We anticipate more cities coming online in the next few weeks, while stadiums that have hosted fans will increase their capacity as the season progresses," McCarthy said. "We have shared best practices from the clubs that have hosted fans safely and responsibly. We also engaged a company that tracked COVID[-19] cases in the local area in time periods before and after fans attending games. There's been no indication that NFL games with fans are having an impact on daily COVID case trends at the local or state level."

Cantrell issued a statement Tuesday afternoon saying: "While the Saints' request for a special exception to the city's Covid-19 guidelines remains under consideration, allowing 20K people in an indoor space presents significant public health concerns. At present, no NFL stadium in the country with a fixed-roof facility is allowing such an exception. We will continue to monitor the public health data, but cannot set an artificial timeline for how and when conditions may allow for the kind of special exemption being requested."

New Orleans is in Phase 3.1 of its reopening, allowing bars to reopen and restaurants to allow 75% seating capacity inside earlier this month. Thus far, the city's restrictions have been stricter than those in the rest of the state.

New Orleans has detailed plans to possibly loosen restrictions in Phases 3.2 and 3.3 later this month -- but fans at Saints games would still not be allowed because they are considered "large gatherings."

With Gov. John Bel Edwards' and Baton Rouge Mayor Sharon Weston Broome's approval, LSU hosted fans at 25% capacity at Tiger Stadium, or a little more than 20,000 fans, at its lone home game so far this season on Sept. 26. Fans were also expected at Tiger Stadium on Oct. 10 before that game was moved to Missouri because of the threat of severe weather posed by Hurricane Delta.

Broome said she'd welcome the Saints playing with fans in Tiger Stadium -- with conditions.

"Should they choose to come, the Saints and Saints fans will be required to adhere to the same guidelines put in place for college football games -- social distancing with 25% occupancy, required masks, and no tailgating,'' Broome said. "If we all do our part, we can begin to return to normalcy."

The idea of the Saints playing "home games" in Baton Rouge, which is about 80 miles northwest of New Orleans, would not be unprecedented. They also hosted four games in Tiger Stadium in 2005 in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, when the team moved its practice operations to San Antonio and also hosted three games in the Alamodome.

The Saints also played preseason games in Baton Rouge early in the franchise's history.

The Saints have allowed 750 family members of players and staff into each of their past two home games in the Superdome as a "test run" for what they hope will be a wider opening in the near future. Their next home game is scheduled for Week 7 against the Carolina Panthers at noon CT on Oct. 25. After that, they don't return home again until Week 10 -- Nov. 15 against the San Francisco 49ers.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.