SBJ/20081117/This Week's News

Talks continue on Superdome lease, upgrade

Stadium manager SMG and the New Orleans Saints continue their talks to extend the team’s lease at the state-owned Louisiana Superdome, a deal that could result in building 12 to 15 more suites and adding 3,000 seats in the lower bowl.

Those upgrades, based on a study sports architect Ellerbe Becket did in 2002, would produce more game-day income for the Saints and reduce their need for the roughly $20 million in state subsidies the team collects annually for playing in one of the NFL’s smallest markets.

Decreases in tourism revenue after the 2001 terrorist attacks and Hurricane Katrina in 2005 forced state officials to tap into other sources of funding to pay those subsidies to the Saints, and discussions have centered on easing that burden, SMG officials confirmed.

Doug Thornton, SMG’s senior vice president in New Orleans, said the two sides are getting closer to signing an agreement that would keep the team at the venue for a minimum of 15 years. The Saints’ lease expires after the 2010 season.

“I’m confident that the Superdome will continue to be their home,” Thornton told the audience at a recent sports management conference in Columbia, S.C.

“I don’t see a new stadium on the horizon in New Orleans at any time in the near future. There is no way we can finance it.”

Saints spokesman Greg Bensel said, “We have a very good relationship with the state, and we look forward to continued dialogue with them.”

Two key components tied to the lease renewal include reconfiguring the lower bowl to make the multipurpose facility “more football friendly” and widening the plaza level concourse from 18 feet to 50 feet to create space for additional food concessions, Thornton said.

There is also a plan, based on Ellerbe Becket’s findings, in which the press box on the 300 level could be moved one floor above to the upper deck, freeing up space to build up to 15 new suites. There are 137 suites at the dome, 73 on the third floor.

The Saints sell the suites for $90,000 to $150,000 annually, depending on size and location. The skyboxes have been sold out since the team moved back to the dome in 2006 after spending 2005 playing home games in three different stadiums.

An alternative to developing new suites would be building a premium club in the area vacated by the press box, Thornton said. The dome’s post-Katrina upgrades included four new 20,000-square-foot corner lounges that opened in 2007 on the club level.

Signing a long-term extension would give the Saints and SMG a better chance to sell naming rights for the Superdome, but that opportunity is still a long shot given the state of the financial markets, Thornton said.

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