Outside of Green Bay, where fans have the unique advantage of owning the team, no city has more invested in its team than New Orleans. And right now, every t-shirt store in New Orleans has one T-shirt that is prominently displayed ahead of all the others. Black with gold lettering, it reads "Free Sean Payton." The shirts reflect the overwhelming sentiment of Saints fans -- that Saints head coach Sean Payton has been unjustly punished by the NFL. Payton is not allowed to coach this season because he failed to stop (and apparently later lied about) an internal bounty system that rewarded injuring opponents. NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell also fined the Saints $500,000 and stripped them of two second-round draft picks.
But the "Free Sean Payton" shirt also reflects the common feeling that Saints fans themselves are being punished by the NFL. "It's terrible," Saints fan John Lemur told a local TV station. "I think it's very, very drastic. I think we're definitely being penalized too hard."
Whether or not Payton deserves his year long suspension, Saints fans have every right to be upset. They pay a lot of money for their team. I'm not referring to the cost of tickets, though the Saints did have the 12th priciest average ticket in 2011 at $75 a pop. I'm talking about the tax money they've paid over the last decade just to keep the team in town. In 2001, then-Louisiana Gov. Mike Foster negotiated on behalf of the state of Louisiana to pay the Saints $186.5 million in payments over 10 years. By 2009, those payments amounted to $23.5 million in cash per year for each of the final three years of the agreement. And that's not all. Times Picayune writer Peter Finney explains:
In addition to those guarantees, the Saints also received: A rent-free Superdome; game-day staffing paid by the state; 100 percent of premium seating (box suites and club seats), 100 percent of game-day parking, fixed panel advertising and video-board advertising and 50 percent of Superdome marketing fund.
The total value of the above amounts to roughly $11 million per season, which does not include ticket sales, sponsorships and broadcast fees controlled by the team.
At the time, the prevailing sentiment was that it was cheaper to just pay the Saints to play in the Superdome than to build the team a new stadium. The state has been giving the team subsidies since Tom Benson and a group of 35 others bought the team for $70 million in 1985. Benson has repeatedly threatened to move the team without ever-greater subsidies. And even though Benson did not feel the Superdome was an adequate home for the Saints, straight cash must have made it a lot more tolerable.
Problem is, the public ended up paying for at least $336 million in renovations to the Superdome anyway, according to stadium expert Neil deMause. So the public paid to keep the team in town and for a virtually new stadium. Just five years ago, following damage from Hurricane Katrina, the state paid to refurbish the stadium. The costs of that project, which (surprise, surprise) included extensive renovations to the luxury suites, totaled at least $220 million. (At least $75 million of that came from FEMA, but those funds could have been spent elsewhere in Louisiana.) A mere two years later, in part of the agreement to keep the Saints in town through 2025, the state agreed to pay for $85 million more in renovations.
The situation is so absurd that the fact that the Saints are finally playing virtually rent-free under the new lease agreement (as opposed to getting paid to play in the Superdome) seems like a great deal for taxpayers.
This long history of being forced to pay for their team has led Saints fans to feel closer to Payton (rather than calling for his head) than the owner and the league that has manipulated them for so long. Benson has been notably absent on this matter and has not publicly expressed any responsibility or remorse for what went on with his team.
So the punishment laid down by Goodell seems especially unfair and arbitrary. Saints fan Jay Kuiros expressed a common sentiment: "It probably goes on with all the teams. We just happened to be the one that got caught."
Whether or not it does, it's extremely hypocritical for Goodell to be so harsh on bounties while continuing to claim that fans would prefer an 18-game season, which would lead to more injuries. (Most fans don't want 18 games, they would rather not have to pay regular price for 4 preseason games, but the NFL intentionally ignores a 16-2 option that would reduce player injuries and fan costs.)
In the end, sportswriter Dave Zirin nails it:
Goodell isn't so much Wyatt Earp as he is Game of Thrones' King Joffrey: vicious, callow, and in the most profound sense, a hypocrite. This is not about changing the lucrative status quo. It's about preserving it and having the Saints carry the sins of an entire league.
Once again, however, it's the Saints fans who will end up paying the most in the end.
Follow Brian Frederick on Twitter: www.twitter.com/brifred