Foster gave into Benson’s demands.
Mike Foster passed away at the age of 90 this past week. Foster owns a special place in the politics of sports business history as he, as the governor of Louisiana, made sure Tom Benson’s National Football League New Orleans Saints franchise remained in the city and state by giving Benson a direct handout of public money. Foster spent state money to keep Benson happy. In 2001, Benson cut a deal with then governor of Louisiana, Foster, to keep Benson from moving his team. Louisiana promised Benson $186.5 million between 2002 and 2010 as a “thank you” for not taking his business elsewhere, despite Benson’s existing long-term lease to use the Superdome. The problem at the time was the marketplace. New Orleans had an old stadium with limited revenue streams compounded by the problem that New Orleans had a very, very limited corporate community absent of many Fortune 500 companies.
The state collected tourism taxes and turned the money over to Benson. In 2002 and 2003, Benson received $12 million and $13 million. But trouble started in 2004, when Louisiana didn’t have the $15 million to pay Benson by a mid-July deadline. While Louisiana officials found alternate revenue sources from which to pay just in time, had the state defaulted on the funding, Benson would have been free to engage other cities in talks about possibly moving his football team that September. The following year, Louisiana went through the same drill. Then Hurricane Katrina hit, and Benson was allowed to relocate his team temporarily to San Antonio, Texas. It was Paul Tagliabue, commissioner of the NFL at the time, who told Benson in no uncertain terms that he had to return to New Orleans in 2006 and Benson complied. Benson negotiated a post-Katrina deal and the old stadium was renovated. Foster may have been the first governor to pay to keep an owner in town.