WHERE DAT? (Part One of Two)

How Trent Lott, NASA & the Need for Profits Collided to Move the Saints to Mississippi

By the time that the National Football League ended its season in January 2001, Tom Benson, the rags-to- riches car dealer who owned the New Orleans Saints, was coming to grips with the fact that he had a serious problem on his hands.

Benson’s quagmire was not on the field. Sure, the Saints had been perennial losers for most of their history, but this go around the team posted a 10-6 record and won their first-ever playoff game. Head Coach Jim Haslett and General Manager Randy Mueller were voted top coach and executive in the NFL, respectively.

To the average fan, things indeed looked very bright for the Black & Gold.

Instead, Benson’s problem was rooted deep within his franchise’s finances. Among the NFL’s 30 teams at the time, the Saints were consistently ranked dead last in revenue. In the ultra-competitive world of professional football, this was a serious — and almost fatal — handicap. “It’s that revenue that ultimately goes into your football operations and ensures that you have a good football team,” Arnie Fielkow, then the Saints’ vice president, told LaPolitics in an interview.

Benson and his executive brain trust were keenly aware that without an influx of money, the Who Dat Nation would quickly be relegated to their old status as the NFL’s cellar dwellers. That meant that they weren’t going to be able to sign coveted free agent players in the offseason. Additionally, if the Saints were unable to match the big contracts that other teams were offering, most of the talent on their roster would migrate.

So Benson, Fielkow and other Saints officials gathered at the team’s headquarters on Airline Drive to comb through the finances. “The discussions were how do the Saints, as a smaller market, keep up from a revenue standpoint with the rest of the other teams,” Fielkow said.

Granted, New Orleans would never be able to match the cash that was available in places like New York, Chicago and Dallas. While looking through their books, however, the team spotted an opening.

What if they played in a new stadium?

A fresh facility had the potential to bring in more fans, which meant more money at the gate for the Saints. At the very least, franchise officials reasoned, the team should at least re-structure the existing Superdome deal. After all, they were still operating under the terms of the 1985 contract that Benson worked out with then-Governor Edwin W. Edwards.

Since the Superdome was a public building owned by the state, any deal required gubernatorial approval and legislative blessing in Baton Rouge. Fielkow, as the Saints’ government relations liaison, reached out to another occupant of the Governor’s Mansion, former Governor Mike Foster, to discuss the idea. A notoriously hands-off chief executive, Foster tasked Chief of Staff Stephen Perry and Executive Counsel Bernie Boudreaux with negotiating the state’s deal with the Saints.

During the subsequent weeks, the sides met several times in New Orleans and Baton Rouge. A site on the West Bank was discussed, as well as the idea of tearing down the Superdome and building another stadium on Poydras Street. Others floated the ideas of sites near the Convention Center and Canal Street. “There really were a lot of creative ideas being tossed around,” Fielkow said.

Perry and Boudreaux, though, were hesitant to commit to a new stadium. They knew the project would have to run the political gauntlet. Even in some preliminary talks with the Foster Administration, lawmakers were not receptive to the idea, especially as they grappled with a budget shortfall and the fourth special session of the term.

Besides, from Perry’s perspective, there was nothing wrong with the Superdome. As he tersely reminded Saints executives, the Super Bowl was set to be played there the following year.

Frustrated at their lack of headway, Benson and the Saints’ top brass discussed their nuclear option — relocation. “There definitely was discussion about the possibility of other cities,” Fielkow said before mentioning talks about Los Angeles, the nation’s second largest media market, and San Antonio, a city where Benson had significant personal and financial ties.

While the radical idea of moving the Saints from the Gulf Coast, yet another idea was hatched. If the team simply moved across state lines to Mississippi, they could maintain much of their existing market. Plus, Benson would not have to pay the NFL’s huge relocation fee and get approval from the other 29 owners. “The Mississippi border is only 30 miles from New Orleans,” Fielkow said.

The type of arrangement the Saints were looking for wasn’t uncommon in pro football. Both of New York City’s teams, the Jets and Giants, for example, played across the Hudson River in New Jersey.

When it came to financing, Mississippi had a huge advantage over Louisiana. Tax revenues they collected from casinos on the Gulf Coast gave the Magnolia State more financial flexibility. With those talking points, Benson and Fielkow reached out to two of Mississippi’s most influential politicians, U.S. Senator Trent Lott and Governor Ronnie Musgrove. Both immediately jumped at the chance to lure the NFL to their home state.

Musgrove took the lead in the negotiations. The Mississippi governor was a tireless industrial recruiter and he had just landed Nissan’s North American production plant. A quintessential country lawyer, he used his warm personal style, down-home demeanor and Southern hospitality to win over high powered corporate titans. Fielkow and the Saints negotiators were impressed. “I must say, Governor Musgrove is somebody I still have great admiration for,” Fielkow said.

The first in-person discussion on the matter came at a hotel near the Mississippi Capitol in Jackson. The governor opened the meeting by making his state’s position clear to Saints officials. “If you want to seriously consider Mississippi, we want to seriously coordinate and seriously work with you,” Musgrove told those gathered.

He also had a stern warning. “It’s not fair for us to be used,’” Musgrove said, adding he didn’t want Mississippi to become the Saints’ leverage in talks with Louisiana.

After being assured the’ interest was genuine, Musgrove questioned Benson and his executives on what would be needed to successfully put an NFL franchise on the Gulf Coast. As a part of his fact finding, the governor even attended a Saints home game in the Superdome at Benson’s invitation. With fate playing a part, or maybe not, Musgrove wound up sitting next to former Governor Edwin Edwards and his wife, Candy, in the owner’s skybox.

Through their contacts in Mississippi politics, Governor Foster’s staff kept abreast of Musgrove’s discussions with the Saints. Perry personally thought the idea of the team moving across state lines was ridiculous. “Nobody was going to drive to Mississippi to watch them play,” he told LaPolitics.

The lead negotiators, meanwhile, held clandestine meetings in various locations. Word leaked out to local reporters that the Saints were considering a move to Mississippi. Not surprisingly, the rumor mills churned loudly in New Orleans, Baton Rouge and Jackson.

One such rumor involved Lott’s brother-in-law, multi-millionaire trial lawyer Dick Scruggs. According to Scruggs, he was boarding a flight in New York when a reporter called and asked if he could confirm or deny that he was in talks with Benson to buy the Saints and move them to Mississippi. Deciding to have a laugh, Scruggs told the reporter that he couldn't comment because the matter was of a sensitive nature. When he returned home to Pascagoula, Scruggs was surprised to find a large media horde camped out on his front lawn.

After months of feasibility studies and late-night negotiations, Mississippi officials finally put forth a formal proposal. A new stadium and a surrounding development would be built just off of Interstate 10 in Hancock County, a few miles from the state line. The facility would be located fully within the boundaries of NASA’s Stennis Space Center, but Lott was expected to easily cut through the federal red tape and get the project approved. (He sat on the subcommittee with direct oversight of NASA.)

“It was going to be a really interesting project,” Fielkow said. “It was going to have a space theme to it, because it was going to be located at Stennis. It was going to have a big development around it too, not just a football stadium.”

Armed with an artist’s rendering of the proposed stadium and favorable economic reports, the governor made Mississippi’s final pitch to the Saints. The wily politician also had a trick up his sleeve.

As his wrapped up his remarks, Musgrove pulled a slim new Motorola cellphone from the pocket of his jacket and handed it to Benson and his executives. “This is a small token of our appreciation for just being able to work with you,” he said.

As the Saints officials turned the phone on, the governor continued. “We’ve already programmed it. When you decide to come to Mississippi, you just hit one, and that’s my number. You can reach me any time of the day or night.”

“Mississippi was absolutely ready to enter into an agreement,” Fielkow said.

(Stay tuned for part two of our series)

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