The Saints, Ready to March into Mississippi

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Sheesh. What's next for those longest-of-suffering football fans otherwise known as the backers of the New Orleans Saints — plagues of locusts? The legendarily bad team experienced a renaissance last year, making the NFL playoffs, and now team owner Tom Benson wants to move the squad to — Mississippi.

The reason is of course money, and how much of it the Saints can get out of a new stadium deal. After negotiations with city officials about a new stadium in New Orleans broke off, Benson announced Tuesday that he would now negotiate with Mississippi officials about moving his team to Hancock County, Mississippi, located on the Mississippi Gulf Coast next to Louisiana. The proposed site is 45 miles from downtown New Orleans, where the Saints have played in the Superdome since 1975.

For several years, Benson has asked Louisiana to refurbish the aging Superdome, which was constructed for a variety of uses, and build a new home for the Saints that would be dedicated solely to football. Louisiana officials say they have offered Benson several desirable deals in recent months — the latest, made during a two-hour meeting Tuesday, would have paid for the immediate refurbishing of the Superdome and promised a new stadium by 2009. (The Saints' contract binds the team to the Superdome until 2005.)

Immediately after the negotiations broke down, Louisiana officials held a press conference to denounce the Saints' plans for a possible Mississippi deal. Steve Perry, chief of staff for Louisiana Gov. Mike Foster, said a move to Mississippi would be "a catastrophic mistake for the franchise on every conceivable level."

"The population base doesn't exist there. It would require everyone in New Orleans driving to Mississippi to go to the games," said Perry. "This is a huge corporate blunder on their part."

Almost 400,000 people live in the 50-mile stretch of coastal Mississippi sandwiched between Louisiana and Alabama. The area has grown as a tourist destination since 1992, when gambling was legalized. An aggressive proponent of economic development, Mississippi Gov. Ronnie Musgrove has conducted a stealth campaign in recent months to convince Benson to move the Saints to his state. Sources said Mugrove and others — including former Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, who is from the Mississippi Gulf Coast — have huddled with Benson to hammer out plans.

Mississippi has reportedly offered to finance construction of a new retractable-roof stadium and a training facility, as well as a sports-themed amusement park with parking and tailgating areas for fans. Sources said the deal will also include a NASCAR racing track. The stadium would be completed by the 2006 season.

In March, NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue advised the Saints to consider turning the club into a regional team, a concept that several NFL teams have used successfully. A move to Mississippi could expand the team's marketing efforts to southern Alabama and Georgia and northwestern Florida in addition to Louisiana and Mississippi, where most of the Saints fans are now located.