METAIRIE, La. - Saints owner Tom Benson in recent years has stoked fears his team might have to move from small-market New Orleans. On Tuesday, he heaped praise upon area fans about record ticket sales.
The Saints have sold about 65,000 season tickets for their eight-game schedule in the Louisiana Superdome, Benson said. In what at times resembled a glorified sales pitch, he urged fans to buy the remaining 3,300 tickets to guarantee sellouts for the entire season.
“There are so many negative stories one year after Katrina, so I felt compelled to come out and talk about a positive story,” Benson said at the team’s suburban New Orleans headquarters. “We have spoken so often about the return of football in the Superdome and what that symbolizes. You do not need to look any further than the resolve of fans and businesses and the way they have rallied around our team.”
Suite sales also have picked up. Benson said 100 private suites have been sold for this season, meaning 37 remain. Corporate sponsorships also have surged in recent months, he said.
Benson, once a critic of the Superdome as he lobbied for a state-paid new stadium in New Orleans, said he was proud of the workers who prepared the Dome to host the Saints’ home opener on Monday night, Sept. 25, against Atlanta.
Benson said that game, with 500 media outlets expected from around the world, could provide a substantial boost to the city by exposing an international audience to the vitality that remains in New Orleans as its people and businesses fight to recover from Hurricane Katrina a year ago.
“As they see this worldwide, then I think this is really the rebirth of everything that’s going to be good for our community,” Benson said.
Some of the sales numbers are staggering, given the devastation Katrina caused in the heart of New Orleans and some suburbs to the east and south.
The Saints were able to renew about 25,000 season tickets after returning in January, meaning the owners of 40,000 season tickets are new customers.
Saints officials credited a variety of factors. One is a new pricing structure that gave fans 17 options compared to nine heading into the 2005 season. About 7,000 seats for the eight-game Superdome schedule, all high in the third deck, sold for only $14 per game. Ticket prices were increased in premium areas closer to the field, but those sold better, as well.
At the same time, many of the suburban areas west and north of New Orleans, which were much better off economically even before Katrina, were spared the worst flooding and have recovered quickly or are even booming from the displacement of many residents to those areas.
The metro area population is around 1.2 million now, and the Saints have been marketing with success within a three-hour driving radius of the Superdome, which includes midsize cities such as Baton Rouge and Lafayette in Louisiana, Jackson, Miss. and Mobile, Ala.
Then there are the changes to the team. The Saints have a new coach in Sean Payton and have added star power by drafting Heisman Trophy winner Reggie Bush and signing former Pro Bowl quarterback Drew Brees.
“They think we’re going to have a good football team and they’re going to show the world we’re here, we’re back and we’re doing things,” Benson said.
Benson said he envisions New Orleans becoming an NFL market similar to Green Bay, which draws fans regionally.
Selling the remaining 37 suites in three weeks may not be easy. However, Mike Stanfield, the team’s vice president of ticket and suite sales, said he has at least that many prospects from whom he’s waiting to hear back.
The nation grieved for those hurt, killed and affected by the Boston Marathon bombings. After one of the suspects was caught on Friday — following a day-long lockdown and manhunt — sports returned to Boston over the weekend.
He added he is committed to the region, although technically his Superdome lease expires in 2010 and he could leave earlier by paying a penalty. Benson said he wants to focus on football during the next few months, but plans to meet with Gov. Kathleen Blanco after the season to discuss a longer lease.
“The governor’s been well informed of what’s been going on and she’s been very supportive of the Saints,” Benson said. “Everybody in this state, including her, feel like we’ve felt a long time (about) how important the Saints are to our state.”
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