Saints Go Golden

A look back at 50 years of New Orleans Pro Football
AP Photo/Charles Harrity
Saints Quarterback Archie Manning (8) led the team as they squared off against the Washington Redskins in the season opener in Washington on September 22, 1975.

On All Saints Day in 1966, the headline of The New Orleans States Item read, “N.O. GOES PRO!” Less than a year later, the New Orleans Saints began their first season with the best start imaginable when rookie John Gilliam returned the opening kickoff of the team’s first game 94 yards for a touchdown. With plans for an Olympic-quality, multipurpose domed stadium to house the new team, it appeared the National Football League’s newcomers and the city of New Orleans were on the fast track to success.

Unfortunately, the team’s blessings ran out after that first play. In their history, the Saints have won about 44 percent of their regular season and playoff games. Still, from the team’s inception, they have been a mark of civic pride, bringing together every demographic across the city’s broad socioeconomic strata.

The Saints made New Orleans a “big league” city. In turn, the Big Easy became one of the NFL’s favorite sites to hold the Super Bowl, playing host to the league championship a record 10 times and bringing in billions of dollars to the regional economy.

“If the Saints were not here, New Orleans would be a completely, completely different city,” said Jay Cicero, president and CEO of the Greater New Orleans Sports Foundation, whose mission is to attract and manage sporting events that have a positive economic impact on Greater New Orleans. “If you don’t have the Saints, you don’t have Super Bowls, you don’t build the Superdome, so you don’t get college football championship games, Final Fours, concerts like the Rolling Stones, Essence Festival or any other mega-sporting events in the past 50 years that New Orleans has become familiar with hosting. It’s as simple as that.”

The Business of Football

For five decades, the Saints have played an instrumental part of the city’s economy, but the story of the growth of the team’s economic fortunes is one that mirrors the growth of sports, especially the NFL, as a dominant player in the draw for the nation’s entertainment dollars.

While the economic numbers in sports were high relative to the average person in the late 1960s, they are minuscule compared to today. Consider this: The Saints’ initial ownership group paid an $8.5 million franchise fee for the team, roughly equal to $61.1 million today adjusted for inflation. Today, Forbes magazine appraises the Saints’ value at $1.52 billion. Additionally, when the Saints began, the average NFL salary in 1967 was $15,000, while the minimum was $12,000.

Playing professional football wasn’t considered a full-time job then, and, well into the 1980s, many players had offseason jobs to supplement their income. Now, professional sports are a year-round enterprise, and the pay reflects the change. Last season, the average NFL salary was a cool $2.1 million ($860,000 median), while the minimum salary in 2015 was $435,000.

TOP LEFT- On Nov. 1, 1966, NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle, left, announced that New Orleans had been awarded the league’s 16th franchise during a news conference in New Orleans. Next to Rozelle is Louisiana Rep. Hale Boggs who helped push the pro-merger bill through the House, and at far right is Louisiana Gov. John McKeithen. TOP RIGHT- The Superdome opened August 3, 1975. Just three years later it hosted the first of seven Super Bowls to date. BOTTOM LEFT- New Orleans Saints Running Back John Gilliam (42) goes for a 94-yard touchdown on the opening play against the Los Angeles Rams on September 18, 1967. BOTTOM RIGHT- Wide Receiver Dave Parks (83) in New Orleans circa 1960s. Photo AP Photo/NFL Photos

 The Saints are a private enterprise and do not release fiscal information as a matter of practice. The team declined comment for this article. However, the Saints made $70 million in operating income off $322 million in revenue in financial year 2014, according to Forbes’ most recent evaluation of NFL team values.  

A lone anomaly in American professional sports, the Green Bay Packers are a publicly held company and provide some insight into the NFL’s economic power. According to the team’s 2015 financial report, each of the league’s 32 franchises received $226.4 million as part of their share of the NFL’s $7.24 billion revenue, made mostly from broadcast deals with CBS, NBC, Fox, ABC, ESPN and the NFL Network, as well as licensing and sponsorships.

NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell has said he wants to increase the league’s revenue to $25 billion by 2027. With the Rams’ return in Los Angeles — the nation’s second-largest media market — starting this season, the next set of broadcast, media and merchandising contracts will be exponentially higher and within reach of Goodell’s goal.

Opening Play: The Political End Around

In the early 1960s, the established NFL was suddenly competing with the upstart American Football League. Both leagues were looking to expand, and both were interested in New Orleans. In June 1966, the NFL absorbed the AFL, but before the merger could be approved, the league had to get an antitrust exemption from Congress. Influential Louisianians Rep. Hale Boggs and Sen. Russell Long worked with then-NFL Commissioner, Pete Rozelle, to get the exemption approved. They attached it to an anti-inflation bill, which was passed and signed into law by LBJ. On Nov. 1, 1966, Rozelle and the politicians took to a podium in the Patio Room at the Pontchartrain Hotel to announce New Orleans had been awarded the NFL’s 25th franchise.

Between the hash marks

For most of their first 20 years, the Saints were the definition of futility and one of the worst teams in sports. It took 25 years and a change of ownership before they enjoyed their first winning season and division crown. They didn’t win a playoff game until 2000, the team’s 33rd year in existence.

TOP LEFT- New Orleans Saints Head Coach Tom Fears and Quarterback Gary Wood (19) in New Orleans in 1967. TOP RIGHT- John Mecom, the first majority owner of the Saints. BOTTOM LEFT- New Orleans Saints Head Coach Bum Phillips (1981-85) walks down the sideline during a game between the Saints and Los Angeles Rams in Anaheim, California on November 8, 1981 BOTTOM RIGHT- Archie Manning led the Saints as quarterback from 1971 to 1982. Photos AP Photo/NFL Photos

While many locals thought they’d never see the Saints lift a trophy – and have faced the prospect that the franchise could move away, New Orleans loves its football team, remains doggedly dedicated and over the years consistently made Saints games one of the hottest tickets in town. The city’s faith has been rewarded with a regular contender in the last decade, culminating with the Saints winning Super Bowl XLIV in the 2009 season.

Economic Impact on NOLA

“The Saints have provided an annual impact that is really immeasurable from the standpoint of both brand of the city, as well as economic activity, job creation and spending,” said Mark Romig, president and CEO of the New Orleans Tourism Marketing Corp. and Superdome game announcer. “I say it’s immeasurable in many ways because the brand of New Orleans was jump-started to an international level once the franchise was announced in the ’60s. You could literally say how much is spent on salaries, merchandise, concession supplies, things like that, and run a factor of whatever economists do to come up with a hard number. But the brand of New Orleans, when you consider the games, the television exposure, the constant attention that the media gives to the team, it’s meant a sustainable economic player for the city and the state. Then when you add in the Super Bowl, any community would want to have that.”

Since the Sports Foundation was founded in 1998, an estimated $64.7 million investment from public and private sources has turned into more than $2 billion in economic impact for the city of New Orleans and state of Louisiana. The foundation claims Super Bowl XLVII alone generated an estimated $434 million economic impact, with $15.2 million in state tax dollars, when the game was played in the Superdome in 2013.

A Tale of Two Owners

John Mecom Jr., 1967-1985

John Mecom Jr., a Texas oilman with an estimated $500 million fortune and family holdings of 750,000 Louisiana acres, was the Saints’ first majority owner. His sporting experience included owning the car that won the 1966 Indianapolis 500, but Mecom, just 27 years old when he purchased the club, led a revolving door of front office and coaching staff whose disorganization and unprofessionalism too often worked against the team’s best interests.

Personnel decisions that would undermine his general managers and head coaches were frequent. Poor drafts dogged the team, which developed a penchant for trading valuable drafts picks for past-their-prime veterans who made little impact while wearing black and gold.

Despite lack of success as an NFL owner, Mecom deserves credit for bringing two personalities to New Orleans that would forever impact the organization — Archie Manning and Bum Phillips.

The Saints selected Ole Miss’ Manning with the second overall pick of the 1971 NFL draft. He was seen as “the Messiah who would finally lead the team to the promised land,” according to “The Saga of the Saints,” former Saints radio announcer Wayne Mack’s book on the 25th anniversary history of the team. While he never had a winning season as a Saint, Manning is a football icon. Renowned for his Southern manner, he maintained his residence in New Orleans, gave radio color commentary on Saints games for years, and became patriarch of the “first family of football,” in which two of his three sons are multiple Super bowl winners.  

Mecom hired Phillips as head coach ahead of the 1981 season. Although he, too, never had a winning season with the Saints—and committed the grave sin of orchestrating Manning’s trade to the Oilers —Phillips laid the groundwork for the team’s success in the late 1980s by overseeing the drafting of players that would provide a foundation for the team’s first winning seasons, including Rickey Jackson, Morten Andersen, Hoby Brenner, Jim Wilks and Frank Warren.

Phillips must also be credited for acting as a stabilizing force when the team was sold. Smarting from the oil bust and lack of success as an NFL owner, Mecom threatened to move the Saints to Jacksonville, Florida, or sell them to a group who would. It was at this point that a native New Orleanian agreed to Mecom’s $70 million asking price and became the new owner of the Saints.

Tom Benson 1985-present

Tom Benson danced into the city as a savior when he agreed to buy and keep the Saints in New Orleans. The car dealer and banker, then estimated to be worth $100 million, brought an immediate change in philosophy to the team’s management. Benson hired General Manager Jim Finks, who hired Head Coach Jim Mora. A strong chain of command was put in place, and the franchise took on a more corporate feel with strict schedules and focus.

Within three years under Benson, the team made its first postseason appearance. The Mora years were filled with optimism as playoff fever hit the city for the first time, but four postseason losses in as many appearances, along with mounting frustration, led the coach to resign midway through the 1996 season.

TOP- Tom and Gayle Benson BOTTOM LEFT- Head Coach Sean Payton BOTTOM RIGHT- Quarterback Drew Brees

Two disasters flanked Jim Haslett’s tenure as head coach. The first was Mike Ditka, who made the infamous trade of all of the Saints’ 1999 draft picks, plus the first- and third-round picks the following year for Ricky Williams. The running back played three seasons in New Orleans, but the trade to get him wrecked the team for several years. Haslett had to make over almost the entire roster, but got the team their first post-season win over the defending Super Bowl champion St. Louis Rams.

Haslett’s tenure fell apart when Hurricane Katrina’s floodwaters devastated the city in 2005. In the darkest period of the team’s history, the Saints couldn’t play home games in New Orleans, and it appeared they might relocate as a result.

Following Katrina, the city, state and NFL fast-tracked the rebuilding of the Superdome to ensure the Saints could return home in 2006. Civic-minded fans who wanted to prove New Orleans remained a viable NFL city responded with the first of a decade-long run of season-ticket sellouts. Under the direction of general manager Mickey Loomis, new Head Coach Sean Payton and newly signed free agent quarterback Drew Brees, the Saints entered the most successful period in franchise history. Fans were rewarded with the team’s first appearance in the NFC championship game in 2006. Four years later, the Saints reached their pinnacle, ambushing the NFL on their way to winning Super Bowl XLIV on Feb. 7, 2010.

Emotional Impact on NOLA

When the Saints play, the city stops to watch. The team has had a season-ticket sellout for 11 years. And those who can’t make it to the game are tuning in to see their “Who Dats” play. The Saints are consistently among the most-watched teams in the league. NFL teams average a 28.2 local Nielsen rating, which indicates the percentage of households with televisions tuned into a show. Saints games consistently measure around 50.

During football season, the mood of the city hangs in the balance of the team’s scorecard. When they lose, the city goes quiet. Normally boisterous greetings become subdued hellos; chatter goes to quick exchanges. But when they win —oh, when they win – people are light and jovial. In a city known for partying, the biggest parties it has seen were the night the team won the Super Bowl and the night of the team’s championship parade.  

Few in New Orleans are as qualified to speak about the emotional connection the team has to the community like the Romig family. Mark has been the Superdome’s announcer since 2013. He took over for his father, Jerry, who called 446 consecutive Saints games over 44 years. His brother, Jay, has worked for the organization for 40 years, and his sister, Mary Beth, has worked as a spotter with her father and brother in the announcer’s booth.

“It’s family,” Mark Romig said. “The team has meant family to my family. Our Sundays, we went to church and then we went to the Saints game. It was part of our life and continues to be.”

Romig said his mother went to every game that his father announced. “So over 44 years, she went to 446 consecutive games too.”

Now, the family’s connection to the Saints is eternal. When Jerry Romig passed away last year, his granddaughter Bailey gave her grandmother a teddy bear wearing a Saints’ uniform and helmet, with a recording of one of his signature expressions. “Now, anytime my mom wants to hear dad’s voice, all she has to do is press his paw and the bear says, ‘First down, Saints!’”



Categories: The Magazine