Tagliabue: NFL wants "to keep the New Orleans Saints as the New Orleans Saints'
Monday, September 19, 2005 - 4:00 p.m.
By Peter Finney and Mike Triplett
NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue sat down with Times-Picayune columnist Peter Finney and staff writer Mike Triplett on Monday at the NFL offices in Manhattan. Here is a partial transcript of the interview:
The Times-Picayune: Why did the NFL want to play as many games in Baton Rouge as possible?
Tagliabue: (The league needed to look into all the logistics of when Baton Rouge could be ready) That was the key for me, was just to buy a little time. That’s why we put this game here. And then if we had been able to play the Oct. 2 game over in Baton Rouge, we would have. But it just was not possible. You’re living there; you know what’s going on up there.
TP: Do you understand where Haslett’s coming from, the team is practicing in San Antonio, wants to play?
Tagliabue: But the key thing is that even from a coaching standpoint, the whole challenge from late August forward was to make this season a meaningful season, a season to fight for, a season to compete in, rather than to make it a lost cause. So how do you make it a season to fight for? You do it by making every game a big, big matchup, including the first home game. We could have put this game, in fact we offered to put this game at neutral sites, like the Georgia Dome and Texas Stadium and Reliant Stadium. But what group of players wants to go into play at a divisional opponent’s stadium, like the Georgia Dome? I mean, I played sports, you want to go in, you want to be challenged to compete. Go into the other guys’ den and beat ‘em. And make the game what it’s become.
Tagliabue then made reference to a cover story about the game in Monday’s USA Today sports section, and later talked about the coverage on national network TV morning shows. … Tagliabue then also pulled out a Fats Domino CD from his collection of “college albums.”
‘When the Saints Go Marching In.’ They should put out a new edition, a 2005 edition. They should have a special edition of that for the first LSU game. … Do an extra stanza or two relative to (Nick) Saban in there.
TP: What’s your gut feeling, 2010? Will there be a New Orleans Saints?
Tagliabue: You know, I think it really turns on, ‘What kind of a New Orleans will there be?’ That really is the question. And we’re going to do everything possible to make sure there’s a New Orleans Saints. But people larger than us and institutions larger than us are going to have to succeed in making sure there is a robust, healthy New Orleans, you know, with fans and businesses and all the things you hope a city can have. But certainly we’re going to do everything we can to try to keep the New Orleans Saints as the New Orleans Saints. And when you read all these different points of view, including the president’s speech, you don’t know what to conclude. Because the president’s speech, I think he said it himself on Friday, was just the beginning of a road map. Now you’ve got to fill in the roads and the street signs and you’ve got to start investing. I saw an interview with the head of Entergy, and I thought he made a very positive point. ‘Yes, we’re committed to New Orleans. But it depends on a lot of decisions being made in the right way. And we hope to have a seat at the table in those conversations.’ And I think that pretty well is where I am. We need to have a seat at the table. We need to be engaged. I can’t sit here in New York, that’s the reason I went to Baton Rouge to talk about the schedule. And at some point, hopefully, we can sit at the table and talk about the future of sports in New Orleans, specifically the Superdome or whatever you want to call it, and the Saints.
TP: A new stadium would never take shape without some sort of long-term commitment on Saints owner Tom Benson’s behalf?
Tagliabue: Right. It’s going to have to be a two-way street. … I was on the Saints’ radio during the preseason, with Bobby Hebert. And it was my understanding at that time – this goes back to early- to mid-August, this was well before Katrina – that the focus was going to be on a successful season and that Mr. Benson and the governor were going to have conversations after the season. That’s what I said, and I said that I would be available to try to make the conversations productive. And then a few days later I saw that they were maybe going to be at it again right now, in August and September. So, even before Katrina, you kind of needed a game program to keep track of what was going to happen from week to week.
TP: Everybody calls the Saints a small-market team, so to speak. But the deal they had in place was a good deal by NFL standards, right?
Tagliabue: Well, I don’t know that much about the deal. I know there was a payment, I know about the various issues. To me, the issue has always been - I think I said this two or three years ago – the issue has always been about the market. And at that time, they were making a lot of efforts to move east to Gulfport and Biloxi and across I-10, and I think they were doing a good job of selling season tickets. They got a pretty good boost in the season-ticket sales at one point. And now it seems like when you go toward Baton Rouge and Lafayette, you’ve got fans over there. You know, it’s got to be like the Kansas City Chiefs, where you go out two or three hundred miles. In Kansas City, you can do it in a series of concentric circles. In New Orleans, you’re a little bit more like the Baltimore Ravens. You’ve got the Gulf of Mexico, and they’ve got the Chesapeake Bay. And of course, that’s a much more populous area, but you’ve got the Redskins right to the south and the Eagles to the north and the Steelers to the west and the Bay to the east. But I thought two or three years ago when they were really focusing in the ‘Gulf Coast Saints’ concept with (executive vice president) Arnie Fielkow, they were doing pretty well, in terms of reaching out beyond the immediate city of New Orleans, which I’ve always felt is the issue. But, you know, whether it’s Indianapolis or Buffalo or New Orleans or San Diego or any other city, I think it’s our responsibility to have a team which the fans and the business community can support long-term. We cannot get into situations where we have to have governmental subsidies to support an NFL team. The fans have to be there, and the business community has to be there. And I give credit to Indianapolis, because I think that they’ve managed to accomplish that out there, with their business community and with their fan base. But that’s the challenge for every team.
On a personal level, I had two amazing coincidences. I have a brother (Robert) who’s older than I am, who’s retired and he’s a Red Cross volunteer. And he told me about a week ago or 10 days ago that he was in Lafayette, Louisiana, with his wife. And he volunteered in South Dakota, he volunteered in Florida last year, he volunteered at the World Trade Center. He really is incredibly enthusiastic about his Red Cross volunteer work. And it turned out last Monday, when I was in the American Red Cross Shelter at the River Center in Baton Rouge, he was in the same building at the same time I was, and we didn’t know it. And then last week, he was delivering meals to a church next to the Saints’ practice facility in Metairie. But he calls me up, he says, ‘Hey, there was a headline in the Baton Rouge paper, Tagliabue Visits Baton Rouge.’ He said, ‘I thought it was a very nice way for the community to welcome me.’ And he was also telling me how tragic it is, and the needs of the people. And on Friday night, I saw a show that was televised on public television from Baton Rouge, where they had maybe 60 or 70 people from all different slices of life that had been displaced. Just people who were in tears, and they don’t have 10 bucks in their pocket and they can’t get access to 50 dollars.
TP: Next year, when the Saints practice again in New Orleans, wouldn’t it be logical that all the games be played in Baton Rouge?
Tagliabue: Well, the first thing we have to do is talk to LSU about that. It was beyond what we were trying to do a week ago today, when we were up there. But that’s a conversation that I think we need to have with Bernie Boudreaux? and his people. What would a Saints schedule, in sync with the LSU schedule, look like? And how would that work from the standpoint of LSU? And how would it work from the standpoint of the fans of both teams? And I just don’t know enough about any of those issues. We talked a little bit last Monday with Doug Thornton and with Bernie and Sean O’Keefe about, once the New Orleans airport opens up, then could the visiting team for the games at LSU, could they stay at the Airport Hilton at Louis Armstrong airport? And could they take buses over to Baton Rouge the day of the game? So we talked a little bit about the drive time for fans in the whole region to access games at LSU. But it was really in the context of this year’s games and the teams traveling from the Louis Armstrong airport over to LSU. We never really got beyond that to take a look at, where are the fans and how would you put 15 to 20 games in one stadium on a college campus, especially since they play most of those games on a Saturday night. But that’s something we’re going to have to start looking at real hard, soon.
Right now, my focus goes from tonight to the 30th of October. Because I think the critical thing now, after this event tonight, which is turning from a logistics standpoint into like a mini-Super Bowl preparation for our staff – we’ve got people working 22 hours a day. But then we’ve got to do the same thing with respect to the four games at LSU and make sure that they’re presented in the right way and that there’s outreach to the fans and that tickets get sold in the right way. I read some stories about LSU ticket holders in the New Orleans area and about tickets lost, just floating out to sea. I don’t know what the situation is with Saints ticket holders. I asked Mr. Benson last week, I know he’s got his people working on it, ‘How many of the Saints’ season-ticket holders actually have a ticket that you can find? And how many of them are going to be in a position to go over to Baton Rouge?’ Because hopefully you’ve got some of that. But on top of that, you’re going to have to sell a lot of tickets to new fans who haven’t customarily been going to Saints games?
I’m going to be at LSU for the first game, that Oct. 30 game. So I would think that maybe that’s the time that we could sit down with Bernie Boudreaux and Chancellor O’Keefe and Mr. Benson and start focusing on the 2006 scheduling options, that type of thing. Because I think that’s the next priority, once we get through tonight, from our perspective. Then we’ve really got to start looking at the logistics for those four games this year, then start talking about next year.
TP: Is it also too early to decide what kind of commitment the NFL wants to make toward helping the team stay in New Orleans, such as awarding the city a Super Bowl, etc.?
Tagliabue: We really haven’t discussed that. That’s going to be a membership decision, obviously. Even on the issue of playing this game here in New York, I had a conference call with Mr. Benson and a half a dozen owners and we had a very thorough conference call in terms of what the alternatives were. Obviously we knew we had to play someplace outside of the Gulf Coast region. But we did talk about the Georgia Dome and Texas Stadium. They were both available yesterday. And that would have been analogous to what we did with the Chargers-Dolphins game when we had the wildfires in San Diego. We played it over in Phoenix, in the Cardinals’ stadium. But it really seemed that the overriding theme here was taking this first Saints home game, quote-unquote, and making it the centerpiece for the rebuilding and the recovery effort. And the choice was clear. Do you have a mega-spotlight on the region and the needs of the region, through the New Orleans Saints? Or do the New Orleans Saints become a minor-league story by playing in the Georgia Dome in front of 25,00 people? So, there was no reason to have it be a minor-league story. It had to be a major-league story. In fact, on that call, Bob Kraft said that, ‘What is uncanny to me is that after 2001, the Patriots became America’s story because it was about patriotism and the nation was under attack from a foreign enemy.’ And after the Patriots won the Super Bowl, he said, ‘We are all Patriots.’ And he said, ‘This is the same thing for the Saints. We are all Saints in 2005.’ And that was the choice between this type of a platform on national television with an unprecedented ‘Monday Night Football’ doubleheader, or some other alternatives that would have made it clear that the team is Louisiana’s team. But how do you do that? Do you put them in a stadium that’s closest to Louisiana, like Atlanta? You know, the idea that people from New Orleans were going to travel to Atlanta under these conditions was obviously not correct. The only people that we felt would respond with passion and understanding and empathy was the people of New York. They’ve been through it four years ago. So that was the reason. And like I say, from a players’ standpoint, what’s better, to play on a national platform with the whole area that you represent, knowing that when the going gets tough, the tough get going? Or playing in a jury-rigged setting with 25,000 to 40,000 fans, which is what the Georgia Dome could have been? Maybe it would have sold out, but you wouldn’t have had the same empathy that you had from the people of New York. And I was well aware as soon as it happened, that the first Giants home game after 9/11 was the Saints. And I met the head of the police department, the head of the fire department down on the field.
TP: What about Baton Rouge supporting both LSU and the Saints for a full season next year?
Tagliabue: It’s a little bit like Bear Bryant at Alabama, when we used to talk about a team in Birmingham. It was like Bear had a stranglehold on the Alabama fans. But we heard that in Tennessee, too, when we were looking at Nashville. We were told by a lot of people that it was a Volunteer state. And I think the Titans have demonstrated that with the right city, the right team, the right presentation, a place like that can support both college football and the NFL.
TP: When discussing options for tonight’s game, was San Antonio an option?
A: No. San Antonio was not in that conversation. I talked to Mr. Benson before the conference call and told him the choices we were looking at were New York, Atlanta, Dallas and Reliant Stadium (Houston). We would have had to do that on a Monday night. And that our policy and our precedents were that you play in another NFL city, in another NFL stadium. The precedents were we had the 49ers after the earthquake, they played a game down at Stanford, which is analogous to playing at LSU. And then we had the most recent example was the wildfire crisis in Southern California, we moved the Chargers and the Dolphins into Arizona in the Cardinals’ stadium. So I told all the owners the choices we were looking at for the first game were NFL cities. It was not going to be the first game in a non-NFL city. We were not going to look at Birmingham. We were not going to look at Orlando. We were not going to look at San Antonio. We were looking at NFL cities. That was our precedent. Whether we changed that down the road once we had more time to think about it, that would be a conversation we would have later. Because our staff had done a lot of work, and they had looked at places like Orlando and Birmingham. In fact, Bart Starr called me up about Birmingham. He said, you know, people down here would be in a position to do it at Legion Field. You could have done it in various non-NFL cities, but …
Q: In this situation, does the Alamodome make sense because the Saints are practicing there?
Tagliabue: Yeah. From a players’ standpoint, doing it on Monday night I felt was a dream of a lifetime, which is reflected in the players’ comments. Then ABC and ESPN were terrific, not only in figuring out how we could do the telecast, but in committing to the Hurricane Katrina rebuilding effort.
TP: In reference to Jim Haslett’s comments about being disappointed about playing in New York do you think part of it was a motivational tool?
Tagliabue: The one thing I noticed was that the AP put a story out which speculated about the idea that they would play every game on the road in another NFL city, which was ridiculous. The day we announced that they were going to play in New York, we sent a memo out to all the NFL teams that under no circumstances would they play in the stadiums of their divisional opponents, Atlanta, Tampa Bay and Carolina. So from Day One, we were clear on that. We focused on the divisional games, because that’s a primary determinator of the (division race). But I think that (story) is the first thing the coach saw. And the problem was, we sent the memo out, but the Saints never saw it, because their fax machines weren’t working, until the following Tuesday. That Tuesday, I was talking to Mr. Benson and Coach Haslett on a conference call, and neither one of them had seen the memo. They had no fax, they had no e-mail. We were barely able to communicate with them over cell phones.
TP: The fact that it’s a very popular Super Bowl site, that helps New Orleans out down the line in the unknown future?
Tagliabue: Absolutely. I would think the success of the prior games would be a big factor for a lot of people - for a lot of owners, and for a lot of other people as well.
TP: Is San Antonio dangerous territory because they are openly considering these three games as a tryout to prove they can be an NFL city?
A: I think their former mayor, Henry Cisneros, I think he put it well. They have got to be clear what their motives are. To be helpful in the context of a national tragedy that grows out of an unprecedented disaster. And their motive is not to steal someone else’s team. He said that.
Q: Stealing the Saints aside, they quickly sold over 50,000 tickets. Might this turn into an opportunity for that city to prove that they should be in the mix?
A: Ever since we approved the move of the Raiders and the Rams, I’ve been saying that our goal is to get a team back to L.A., either through expansion or whatever, and we’re not going to be moving any teams into small markets. We’re going to be moving up in market size, not either down or flat. That’s our goal. So that’s been my mindset. We’ve had enough teams move from large markets to small markets. So if – if – any teams are relocated in the future, the objective is going to be to concentrate them, put it this way, in markets that can really support them. Gene Upshaw said it the other day about Jacksonville. I think Jacksonville, long term, we knew what we were getting into. We knew we were getting into the growth of Northern Florida. But Jacksonville was an expansion decision consciously made by the entire membership. Relocation of a team involves a whole different set of issues.
Q: The 2010 Super Bowl is completely off the table for New Orleans?
A: Yeah, we decided that a month or six weeks ago, that the three cities that lost out to Tampa would be the three cities that would compete for the game we had tentatively committed to New York.