Mercedes-Benz has Superdome deal

NEW ORLEANS -- The home of the New Orleans Saints and site of six Super Bowls will be renamed the Mercedes-Benz Superdome under a deal with the German automaker announced Tuesday.

The deal will allow Mercedes-Benz USA to have its name associated with championships in college and pro football and men's college basketball over the next 16 months -- plus an NFL team that has gone from a doormat to Super Bowl winner. The stadium also hosted a Republican presidential convention and a visit from the pope, and once served as refuge for thousands of victims of Hurricane Katrina.

The team holds authority to sell naming rights to the 73,000-seat, state-owned stadium through their lease, which runs through 2025.

A price for the 10-year naming-rights deal was not disclosed. Gov. Bobby Jindal said the agreement was between the Saints and Mercedes-Benz -- and the automaker had asked not to have the price released to the public.

Mercedes-Benz also owns naming rights to arenas in Shanghai and in Stuttgart, Germany. The Superdome is the company's first such venture in the United States.

Andrew Zimbalist, a Smith College professor who studies sports economics, said the economy has made the sale of naming rights difficult lately. He said that the British bank Barclays paid less than expected in 2007 for naming rights for the Brooklyn arena that will house the NBA's Nets, as did the MetLife insurance company in a deal this summer for naming rights to the New Jersey stadium where the Jets and Giants play football. He also cited the fact that Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones has yet to sell naming rights for his stadium that opened in June of 2009.

"It's been a very difficult time to sell naming rights," Zimbalist said.

Gov. Bobby Jindal called the agreement "a great partnership between two world-class organizations" and touted the savings that taxpayers would enjoy by elimination of a state payment to the team.

Superdome manager Doug Thornton said the addition of the naming-rights deal to extra revenues from new seats, luxury boxes and expanded concession stands and clubs will eliminate the state's payment, which he said totaled $13.8 million last year. That revenue deal went into effect with the current NFL season.

"It goes from $13.8 million to zero," Thornton said.

The Superdome opened in 1975. It has gone through many renovations, including a massive rebuild after Katrina ripped off its roof when the storm struck in August 2005.

The Superdome was considered a total loss by some lawmakers, who debated if it was worth restoring after the 2005 storm. The roof had been torn off and the building flooded. Evacuees filled the building, stewing in the heat without lights, air conditioning or working bathrooms, a scene that epitomized the chaos of the disaster.

The stadium reopened for the 2006 Saints season as the first part of a multiphase $336 million renovation project paid for by the state that was completed this past summer. Workers have replaced, refurbished and added seats; created new club facilities and luxury suites; and installed new video systems and scoreboards.

"Having big upcoming events is attractive to those wanting naming rights," Zimbalist said. "But as strange as it sounds, the role the Superdome had during Katrina and the attention it drew probably turned out to be a positive."

Upcoming events are expected to attract an affluent demographic targeted by the automaker that's owned by Germany-based Daimler AG. The Allstate Sugar Bowl and BCS college football championship are scheduled in January 2012, followed by the NCAA's men's Final Four basketball championships in April 2012 and the Super Bowl in 2013.

Ernst Lieb, chief executive of Mercedes-Benz USA, said the city's successful rebuilding after Katrina was another major factor in agreeing to the deal.

"I don't think three or four years ago, Mercedes-Benz would have thought about going into a relationship like this," he said.

A naming-rights deal had been an elusive goal for the Superdome, one of the few readily recognizable stadiums without one. Lieb said Saints owner Tom Benson's wife, Gayle, came up with the idea of approaching Mercedes-Benz. Her husband is a longtime owner of Mercedes-Benz dealerships in New Orleans and San Antonio. Serious talks began in April when Benson visited Germany.

"We look forward to this deal doing great things for the city, this stadium and the New Orleans Saints," Tom Benson said.

In addition to a familiar football venue, the stadium was the site of a 1987 visit by Pope John Paul II and the 1988 Republican National Convention.

Built at the edge of New Orleans' business district, the stadium has a place in local lore, which holds it was built on the site of a former cemetery. In voodoo-conscious New Orleans, some speculated that was one reason why the Saints didn't have a winning record from their first season in 1967 until 1987. Their break-out season came after Pope John Paul II celebrated Mass before thousands on the stadium floor.