WILL THE SAINTS come back to New Orleans? Last week owner Tom Benson bypassed a chance to simply say yes and instead said no decision would be made until the end of the season. But Benson, who has said little publicly since the Saints set up operations in San Antonio after Hurricane Katrina, may have tipped his true intentions with the firing of executive vice president Arnold Fielkow on Oct. 17. Fielkow, one of Benson's closest lieutenants, was a proponent of the Saints' playing their home schedule this season in Baton Rouge, not San Antonio, where the franchise might be more profitable. Benson pushed to play at the Alamodome until NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue, saying he wanted the Saints to be part of the rebuilding effort in Louisiana, brokered a deal for four games at Tiger Stadium in Baton Rouge and three in San Antonio.
Also troubling for New Orleans sports fans was the statement made by San Antonio mayor Phil Hardberger after he watched the Saints lose to the Falcons from Benson's suite at the Alamodome on Sunday: He said Benson wanted to relocate to his city before the 2006 season. And last week a Saints lawyer sent a letter to the Louisiana Stadium & Exposition District arguing that hurricane damage at the team's practice facility gave Benson the right to terminate their lease.
Still, city officials say the Superdome will be fixed in time for the Saints to play some games there in 2006. Last week Tagliabue created a panel of eight NFL owners to advise him on the New Orleans situation. He also said decisions about the team's location will be made by the league, not Benson alone. Meanwhile, the Saints play their first post-Katrina game in Louisiana this Sunday, against the Dolphins in Baton Rouge. Ticket sales have been slow and Benson's behavior may not be helping matters. "I mean, who's going buy his tickets?" New Orleans mayor Ray Nagin told The Times-Picayune. "I'm not buying one."