Living the Dream
Dennis Lauscha, president of the New Orleans Saints and New Orleans Pelicans, shares his personal pregame rituals, discusses his biggest pet peeve, and talks about the future of both teams and their stadiums.
Michael C. Hebert
Dennis Lauscha has a dream job, and he knows it. The New Orleans native is president of the New Orleans Saints and New Orleans Pelicans, and as such he oversees the business interests of the two franchises, as well as those of team owners Tom and Gayle Benson.
In the three years since Biz New Orleans last featured Lauscha in a Q&A, the teams’ combined estimated value has increased by $1 billion. According to Forbes, New Orleans’ two major league sports franchises are worth a combined $2.5 billion. The Saints are appraised at $1.75 billion, with $358 million in revenue ($77 million last year), and the Pelicans are valued at $750 million, with $156 million in annual revenue and $16.7 million in operating income.
Lauscha has also overseen the Bensons’ venture into horse racing since 2014, as well as the purchase and return of Dixie Beer to New Orleans over the beginning of this year.
Lauscha has worked for Benson for 21 years and has held several positions and responsibilities in that time. He is part of the team that represents the Saints at NFL owners meetings and develops bids to bring Super Bowls and NBA All-Star Games to town.
Lauscha helped negotiate the Superdome lease that keeps the Saints in New Orleans through 2025, as well as the deals to name the Mercedes-Benz Superdome and the Smoothie King Center. Prior to joining the Saints, Lauscha worked as the club’s auditor for four years while working for national accounting firm Arthur Andersen.
Lauscha recently sat down with Biz New Orleans to discuss the Saints as they enter the 2017 season, his views on the Pelicans as a second fiddle franchise, and further renovations to the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, Smoothie King Center and their external campus.
What are your thoughts on New Orleans as a sports town?
New Orleans is the best sports town in America. The city is very passionate about its teams, and the teams are very passionate about the citizens and the culture that we have here. For me growing up, the New Orleans Saints were No. 1. The Jazz were very important to me when I was a kid. A lot of kids, when you ask them their favorite team, you’re expecting them to name a college team. Not in this city. It’s one of the professional teams. You hear it over and over again, but the teams are absolutely woven into the fabric of New Orleans. If ever there has been a team that has been defined more by its city and culture than the Saints, I don’t know what team that is.
Can the city support two pro teams?
Some people say perhaps there shouldn’t be two teams in this small city. But we look at it a bit differently. First of all, when we look at the Saints, our fan base is not just in New Orleans and Jefferson Parish. It truly is throughout the southeast United States. If you look at the population of Louisiana, Mississippi, southern Alabama and the panhandle of Florida, you’re talking about roughly 7 million people. That’s really where our fan base is. Over a third of our fans come from the southeastern part of the United States, not just New Orleans.
As it relates to basketball, it’s a little bit more difficult. With 42 home games and some on Tuesday nights, we won’t see people commute from, say, Jackson, Mississippi. But it’s important that they feel engaged, that they’re watching on television, listening on the radio and making weekend trips to come and see the team in New Orleans.
The beauty of this market is that we have a tremendous amount of support, not just from the fans, but from the leaders, too. All of us have a great working relationship. We’re all working together to make sports a viable industry in this city. We’ve come to the agreement and understanding that we all have to pull in the same direction; that includes the tourism and convention business, the leadership in New Orleans and the leadership in Louisiana. All of us have to pull in the same direction in order to be successful.
How do you manage what could be an especially intense schedule from mid-July to, possibly, late June?
First of all, you manage it by having outstanding people around you. Our staff, bottom to top, is really good. We joke a lot of the time that this isn’t a profession, it’s a vocation. If you want to get into sports, you really have to want to do it. You really have to be dedicated – particularly with us because we have two sports. Having great people around you is the most important thing.
Also, if you’re having fun or if it’s something that you really like to do, then it’s not work. Sure, there are a lot of late hours, and there’s a lot to do, but at the end of the day, there’s still a passion for it. Fortunately, or unfortunately, a lot of our executives and managers here do not have many hobbies outside of work. Their hobby is football, basketball, horse racing or some of the other business ventures we’re into.
How do you balance work and family life?
I don’t have many hobbies. When I leave here I spend all of my time with my family. My wife is outstanding. My kids are great. They enjoy sports and coming to the games. They’re big fans. I spend a lot of quality time with my children through work. I’ve been blessed in that way.
How do you manage stress?
It may sound funny, but I don’t feel very stressed. There have been times over the last decade or so, particularly going through Katrina, the ‘Bountygate’ issue, and the crush of the Super Bowl — those could be stressful times. But we have a great team and a great owner in Tom Benson and Mrs. Benson. A lot of the noise that you would think would come along with being the president really is eliminated because of the good people that we have here. They make it much easier for me.
How have the Saints and Pelicans embraced technology?
We’ve spent a lot of time and effort embracing technology both on the football field and basketball court, as well as behind the scenes. We have five full-time analytics people here on staff who are constantly managing databases involved with the sports and business sides. With the NFL and NBA, we are always pushing the envelope with regard to which technologies we can embrace to make our on-field and off-field products better.
The big push for us over the last year has been innovation. We’re working on an artificial intelligence project, which is cutting edge. We’re also using it on the health side with recovery technology and nutrition. I know we’re doing things that other organizations aren’t doing or even attempting.
How do you feel about the teams’ relationship with the state and preparing for the next round of lease negotiations?
I think we have a good relationship with the state. We’ve learned that we can get a lot accomplished if we both can recognize the business aspects, limitations and aspirations of what both sides are trying to accomplish. If you go back to the ugliness of 2000 and through Katrina there were some very confrontational times for us and the state as it related to a long-term agreement. We were really able to put that behind us and focus on what’s best for the buildings, what’s best for the organizations, and how we can move forward with what’s best for the state.
I think as we continue, as we start to look toward what’s next for the Superdome, the question is should it be an evolution or a revolution. Some of the things being talked about are revolutionary. We have an architect who is currently working on a long-term master plan. Everything is on the table. The No. 1 focus is to improve the building for the fans for the next 25, 30, 50 years. We’ll see where we can go.
What will be needed to get the proposed Superdome updates accomplished?
At the end of the day, it’s always money and the will to get it done. There certainly is a recognition from our standpoint that the state is having some issues right now. There’s no question about it. Money is going to be an issue. We have to understand what issues are in play with the state. The state has to understand what issues are in play with the team. Then we’ll have to make our way and figure out the best way to accomplish it. We always have.
Will Mercedes-Benz keep its sponsorship of Superdome?
First, let me say Mercedes has been a great partner with us, and they have every intent to honor the contract that we currently have. It’s a little difficult to speculate whether they’ll be back or not after their term is up considering the Atlanta stadium. I’d hope that they’d stay forever, but the realist in me tells me there might be a change there. If there is, I’m comfortable with making a change, and I’m sure we’ll find someone as iconic as the building. It’s got a number of big events that it will be hosting well into the next decade. As long as big events continue to come, there will always be someone who is looking at the naming rights.
The Saints seem to be in their best position competitively in a few seasons. Has it affected sales and marketing efforts?
For the Saints, sales and marketing have been outstanding. We had a couple of big renewals this year. There’s also a good flow of new business that’s coming in. We once again this year had (season ticket) renewal percentage rates in the high 90s. When we see people not renewing it’s either they’re moving away or someone in the family has died or, quite recently, there have been some folks affected by (the downturn in) oil and gas. But for the most part, everyone has renewed. We haven’t raised ticket prices in a while. We’ve seen the base stay pretty steady. The waiting list is approaching 60,000, which is remarkable. We’re very proud of that.
What does the London game against the Miami Dolphins on Oct. 1 mean for the franchise?
More than anything, it’s what it means for the city and the exposure the city is getting. We’re viewing it as a great opportunity to increase exposure and tourism for the city. That’s what our big focus is from a business perspective in going over there. If you look at who are some of our biggest fans globally, England is in the top five for us. England is a big market for us.
From a football standpoint, it’s a very difficult trip logistically. We’re going to be there for a week leading up to the game. That means we have to break down everything on the football side of the business, pack it up, ship it to London, and set it up there. That includes technology pieces, weights and equipment. It’s a tough deal logistically, but it’s one that we’re used to, and we’ve had success playing there as well.
Have the Saints’ offseason additions affected sales and marketing efforts?
Yes. I preach this a lot. There are three things that sell tickets: you have to be priced right, the team has to be headed in the right direction, and the fans have to like the players, coaches and owner. I think that a lot of people think we’re headed in the right direction with the people we brought in, and the emphasis on defense, the draft and our free agent acquisitions.
What do you think of the perception some have that the Pelicans are the little brother franchise?
It’s a pet peeve of mine. I’d say two thirds of my time is focused on basketball. We’re invested significantly on the Pelicans’ side of the organization. When we bought the Pelicans we made promises in regard to rebranding the team. We did that. We said we wanted to be a playoff team. We did that. Now we need to improve on it. We’re investing. We invested in DeMarcus Cousins this year. We said we were going to get a new radio deal and TV deal, and we’ve been able to check all of those boxes on things we wanted to accomplish. We’re also helping with educating about coastal erosion. We’ve partnered with Biddy Basketball, which no one in the NBA has done. We have 40,000 kids participating in youth basketball through the Biddy program.
Do the Pelicans have any updates in mind for the Smoothie King Center?
Sure. The master plan that we have coming is primarily focused on the Superdome, but it covers the entire campus. We’re looking at extending Howard Avenue, putting more connections between the arena and the Superdome.
A big complaint that we get on the basketball side is that when we do pregame things in the street outside of the Smoothie King Center, it’s next to the trash and loading dock at the Superdome. So we’re looking at ways to rearrange that, possibly move those areas to other places to benefit the Smoothie King Center.
How is Mr. Benson doing?
He’s doing great. He’s constantly pushing us to look at new ways to invest in the community, how we can be better as teams and businesses. He’s been busy with football, basketball, horse racing and now he’s taking on Dixie Beer, too.
Dennis Lauscha at a glance
Hometown: New Orleans
Family: Wife, Jennifer; son, Patrick, 14; daughter, Evy, 11
Education: Jesuit High School, New Orleans; University of Alabama, bachelor’s degree in business; Loyola University of New Orleans, master’s of business administration; the NFL Managers Program at Stanford University’s Executive Education Graduate School of Business; licensed Certified Public Accountant
“The Meaning of Sports” by Michael Mandelbaum – A must read for anyone in the sports business or a sports fan
Favorite TV Show?
Of course Fox 8’s 9 & 10 p.m. newscast. Also “Informed Sources” and “Frontline”
Who do you look up to?
Biggest life lesson learned?
Continuous improvement and education is a daily endeavor.
Best advice ever received?
It’s amazing what we can accomplish if no one cares who gets the credit.
Louisiana and New Orleans history, art and culture
Bedtime prayers with my kids
People being late or ill-prepared for a meeting
What are you most excited about for the upcoming Saints season?
We have an exciting new group of players and coaches. I have been a Saints fan my entire life, so like any other year I of course expect a 16-0 season followed by a Super Bowl win!
The NFL and NBA have gone global. This fall, the New Orleans Saints will play the Miami Dolphins in London on Oct. 1. The game will give the league and both teams international exposure.
Dennis Lauscha, president of the New Orleans Saints and New Orleans Pelicans, said both teams have a growing international market that they are hoping to expand.
“The top (global) markets for us, in many ways, reflect where (expatriate and overseas) U.S. citizens are to a certain degree,” Lauscha said. “We have very large fan bases who watch both the Saints and Pelicans in Brazil, France, Germany, England, Japan, Canada, Mexico and The Philippines.”
“From a basketball standpoint, China is very big for us. We played in China last year, and the reception was very, very good. They love Anthony Davis. But who doesn’t?”
But not all of the teams’ global fans wait for them to come overseas to see their team.
“We actually have a Saints season ticket holder from Germany who makes it to a bunch of games each year, which we’re really proud of. So, we truly are a global team, and we’re trying to become more global every year.”