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The New Orleans Saints head to London this Fall to play an NFL regular season game at Wembley. In an extensive interview, Richard L Gale asks Saints Owner/Executive Vice President Rita Benson LeBlanc about the football business, coming to London, and life after Hurricane Katrina.
GROWING UP AROUND FOOTBALL
What was the first football game you can remember watching?
I was probably nine or ten and I think it was one of the games where I ran around on the field afterward with my grandfather celebrating. That''s certainly the one that stands out.
Who were your sporting or business heroes growing up?
I read a lot of biographies when I was growing up. I remember reading Lee Iacocca's book when I was in junior high. I just read everything. But really my grandfather was the most successful person that I knew, and I wanted to be involved in all the family businesses, and carry on the family legacy from a very early age.
At what age did you realize that your career could be that of a football executive?
I always felt I wanted to be involved in all the businesses, but once I got into high school and college and worked an internship with the club, it kept my interest. We have such incredible professionals that we work with as far as the team level and the NFL office. A lot of people think the league tells the team what to do, but it's really a constant flow of information back and forth between the two, and I got a chance to go and watch it evolve over the years.
Did you help with the football team while you were at Texas A&M?
In the summers, I did come back and work for the team ...or the NFL headquarters office – I worked in public relations and also the community relations department. There was a League office that focused primarily on publishing in Los Angeles, so for a summer I worked there, and then after that with NFL Films. These people are just the crème de la crème. It was fascinating so I loved it because it was everything I had an interest in as far as events or writing creatively and cinematography.
After a degree in AgriBusiness at Texas A&M, you've really stood out in marketing so is this something you picked up from your time through NFL films and publishing?
I think I've always been someone who understands about marketing and promotion, and just talking and spreading the word. That sort of thing was just something I had a knack for, but when I was in business school, I didn't really want to get pigeon–holed — I wanted something that was a bit more broad and unique, and agricultural economics is really commodity markets, feeding the world, really large corporate businesses.
Are you involved in any agri–business as well?
Not especially, but we have a ranch in Texas – that's about as close as it comes. We do eat our own beef that we raise on the ranch, but that's more of a family perk.
MARKETING — KATRINA AND BEYOND
How did it feel to win a WISE (Women in Sports and Events) Women of the Year Award?
That was incredible. I attended the luncheon years ago in New York and would never have thought that they'd recognize me, so to be up there with Pam Oliver and Molly Solomon – it was remarkable. It was a tremendous honor.
What's been your most proud achievement: making it within a game of the Superbowl, or selling out at home three years running?
I can't pick one. Competitively all I want is to go to the Superbowl – it is the golden ring and what we all strive towards – so coming that close was a wonderful year, and now we're so determined. But on the business side I'm very proud of the accomplishment, but more so because of the nature of New Orleans. It reiterates the connection we have with our community and our people, because you have teams that are very successful, and sell out, but they don't have that waiting list and those kind of things. That takes a lot of hard work, a lot of communication, a lot of interaction with the public and creating confidence.
What special considerations are there in running an NFL team in one of the NFL's smallest markets?
You can't always tell how cities are going to evolve and which ones are going to shift in relevance. You figure a way to make them relevant in their community. It's been interesting to see which teams and which cities have thrived. What we're really conscious of is working with our local business community to strengthen ties and attract new businesses and use our game as a recruiting tool if possible. We get more attention than most people, so we're able to use that platform of the NFL and the website to talk about our community, and all of that is what a lot of teams strive to do to be strong in their market, but I think we excel at it. We certainly never stop thinking about it.
Some people would say that marketing a team to a disaster–hit region is a job from hell, but you seem to have thrived on that challenge. Take us through the marketing of the Saints over the past two–three years.
We have a great local agency that we use that really understands the people here, and they work with a lot of great groups. When we came back from the storms we didn't have a winning record the year before, so we needed things that were good core values and something that everybody can be proud of and understand and get behind, and you can't just say 'lets win it' because it would be too depressing. They had a lot of different ideas, but the ones we focused in on were core value–based, so that was winning with an attitude.
Do you think that the influence of Katrina was a factor in the team's success the following season once they returned home?
Our head coach Sean Payton did a tremendous job of taking the old players and new players, and our internal office and leadership and everyone towards the same goal and having a great deal of good attitude [and] also great positive energy about it. Our head coach is a guy who was a borderline player who had to work extra hard to make teams, and then our quarterback [Drew Brees] is a guy who has always had an incredible talent, but he had an arm injury and his team didn't really have faith in his ability, so everyone was kind of coming from behind [or] people could doubt you – our head coach was a first year head coach – or question that you were young and fresh but everybody sort of had something to prove.
The year before [the year Katrina hit], a lot of our guys were still the same players, and very talented athletes but ... it's a head game, you have to be able to focus on the game, and you could tell, we had so many games that came close that year even though our record was bad, where their heads weren't in it. It was so hard to focus, there was so much to be done and you were worried and upset about people, and the pressure of thinking that you were playing for an entire community. It wasn't a measure of their heart. And you're playing in so many locations, its physically draining, so for that, I though they were incredible because of the adversity that they got through.
The year that Katrina hit, your grandfather was under fire amid suspicions he would move the team to San Antonio. This summer, he won the Good Samaritan Award in Philanthropy for his efforts helping to rebuild the region after Katrina. Tell us about that change of perception.
I found an article literally a few days before the storm saying 'oh by the way, the Saints are going to evacuate to San Antonio' – no big deal because the year before we had to do the same thing for Hurricane Ivan, so people could care less. It wasn't until there was havoc and panic everywhere and people in such a heightened emotional state, and then suddenly everything we do is completely and utter scrutinized. So ... suddenly it would become everybody's focal point. In the early days every statesment was that we were doing everything we could to help New Orleans and come back, and people used that as a way of getting media attention to say 'why aren't you coming back more quickly.
In the early days you didn't have access to the airport, there wasn't access to the Superdome, so for us there was certainly nothing we could say that was concrete at the time. And then once it did look like they could rebuild the dome, we were absolutely here and we were committed with the NFL and all of us pooled resources to put it back together.
The Superdome is one of the oldest venues in the NFL. San Antonio is a much larger market than New Orleans, and you even grew up in San Antonio. Isn't a team move to San Antonio an inevitability?
No. Right now we're in negotiations and discussions with [the Louisiana] Governor and his people and we have a fantastic relationship with them, and we're as commited to Louisiana as he is, on working out a deal that helps us to be economically stable so that we can be prosperous here. He recognises the value of an NFL club to a city and to a state. We don't have a contentious relationship, we're just looking through normal business for us and it probably won't take that long. I don't see any bumps in the road as far as us having a long term agreement to be here in Louisiana
What news on a new stadium in New Orleans? Is there an emotional attachment to the Superdome?
There certainly is. It was an incredible building when it was built, and it did a great deal to revitalize that area of New Orleans. I think there are a lot of things that our city and hopefully the state can help to support as far as visionary development that can change and enhance downtown. We're seeing what we can do to build more green space, tailgating, to add around the Superdome.
Will there still be a Superdome in ten years time?
I would say that the Superdome will be there. We're open to discussing other facilities and future things, but it would
certainly have to incorporate development of an actual area – there's a lot that's been done for different sporting events or facilities to revitalize downtown and re–energize areas, and so something like that could be interesting for our city.
How's the city looking now? Are there still areas of disarray?
It's not as much. I did some driving out of town on the East Side; a lot of what looked blown out doesn't look the same any more. The storm hit every socio–economic area of the city. You can find the worst areas that are still destroyed, and you can go to the country club that's near my house and see just as many multi–million dollar homes that are still blown out. As far as most of the major heart and soul of the city as far as French Quarter – and those are really the historic areas where a lot of people who visit would see – and the airport, you wouldn't notice. In fact for people who come, quite often it actually looks better in a lot of areas because people were finally able to get their insurance money and so there's a different energy. A lot of people left. People who came back were absolutely commited to coming back and those that didn't stay needed to move on with their lives, so the personality of the city was a lot different. It's always been very gracious but now there's even more energy and gratitude and hospitality. But we're also attracting a lot of people from all over the country, a lot of young people coming down to volunteer, to start their companies, and people are making a conscious effort to be a part of revitalizing an American city – and I think that's really special. You can't do that just anywhere; there's cities where you can go to live and you can kind of live on autopilot anywhere, but with New Orleans you're shaping a city that's very historic, very cultural.
ARENA LEAGUE AND THE VOODOO
The Saints aren't the only game in town. You also run the Arena Football League's New Orleans VooDoo, and again the team has been a marketing triumph. Is this further proof of the passion of New Orleans football fans?
Football is definitely a southern passion, and especially in Louisiana. In bringing the Voodoo, we wanted to make sure we had year–round football for the fan, and also that was affordable. There's a premise with the AFL that you will always have tickets that are less expensive than going to the movies, that young families can always afford. We have incredible front row premium seats those are much more expensive, but there are always seats that a small family can afford.
What is the future of the Arena League: as a second product for NFL fans or does it go beyond that?
It goes beyond that. We have a mixture of fans that are die–hard football and die–hard Saints fans, and then we have fans that don't go to the Saints games. They go because its different and I think you have younger generations who just want a different sort of product. ESPN has been a tremendous partnership for us, they grew the X Games. It's just a different type of people who follow that, and so I think that the AFL has a real strong point, because it attracts people who like things that are very different and yet attracts football fundamentalists. We're still growing our fanbase as a team. If you look at the history of the NFL, in the early days college football was everything and it's taken 80 years before the NFL is the leading sport in the United States, and the AFL is much further along in 20 years than a lot of the other leagues were and that's exciting because it's a mix of people who have experiences in other leagues and kind of picking best practices and refining.
The recent decision to opt out of the Collective Bargaining Agreement offered the rare sight of 32 owners agreeing. How easy was finding full consensus on the issue considering the differences between financial circumstances of 32 teams?
What everyone agrees is that it's the equation of the actual agreement as far as how it disincentivizes growth, and so everyone agreed that it wasn't working for us. So, much more discussion remains as far as solutions for both sides, but we could all agree that it was putting pressure, that it wasn't in the long term interests of the NFL – or the players for that matter.The players are paid off of total revenue, and so what we are trying to do is put together a formula that really benefits them, but is based upon a logical business formula and that helps us to grow the game. And the player agreement doesn't take into account the debt that the owners have put up as far as building these new stadiums and elements like that. So if you're disincentivizing us from building new stadiums and expanding, then suddenly we're all screeching to a halt as far as the economic engine, and it's trying to communicate that to the other players and the people who are negotiating. We need a CBA to work and operate under, and we fully expect to have one, but it's just the terms of the contract. This was when we were basically supposed to let them know that it's not really working for us, therefore we've got three years to discuss and figure out a good contract that helps everyone grow the revenue together.
How long have you been attending owners' meetings?
Over a decade.
Has it ever felt like you're crashing an old boys' club?
I grew up around my grandfather's friends and peers, and so I just had a different sort of comfort level. I'm sort of use to it. I've been around longer than some of the other guys too – there's been a lot of owners who have come in since then. I have a bit more institutional knowledge.
Not naming names, but have you found other owners to be dismissive of you, either because your gender or the market size of New Orleans?
Nobody's really like that. They're all great gentlemen and there's some other women that are involved; I think what most people don't realize is that you have the owner that's kind of the principal person who gets more of the media attention, who sits there in the meetings, but a lot of the teams are owned by families, so there are a lot more of the matriarchs of the family that really are more involved or really are the owners.
I've found having experienced different people in different leagues that the personalies and types of people are different. The AFL is a little younger and a bit more aggresive as far as which business backgrounds they come from. The NFL is a little bit of an older generation, but it's self–made men and it's still the people that took a long time to build the companies rather than necessarily internet money, that kind of thing. So they're people that I think are a little bit more patient when it comes to building companies a bit differently. Once you start to meet the guys, there's a sort of personality of the room, that they're unique entrepreneurs, and I like the mix.The mix is also what helps push us to do better because you have some that have marketing strengths – Arthur Blank is from Home Depot – and then some people are from the investment world.
If detachment from the CBA leads to a more competitive free agent market, how will the Saints fair against the big–spending teams such as the Redskins and Cowboys, who not only have bigger wallets but flashy facilities?
We have fabulous facilities – we have indoor facilities that weathered the storm. With the renovations to the dome there's some great facilities there as well. Also, you build it through the reputation of your people. It's one thing if people are spending money, but you can see the clubs that have spent a lot in free agency and put a bunch of big name guys together who really couldn't come together as a cohesive team, and they don't win. So I think a lot of the players are wise to that – or some are, some aren't – and for the most part they want to be somewhere where they can respect the people they work with, and also where they can win and be successful. If you have that word on the street, that people know what kind of first class facility you have, then you attract the best, because the best want to be where they can be successful. Top to bottom, the people here feel that, and we constantly watch it and do things in our locker room that make it the best, and so there are little big ways that we make ourselves different.
What changes are you looking for by parting with Rick Mueller and adding Khai Harley as a cap specialist?
There's a shift there that happens over time: Rick has been with us for quite some time, and is a good evaluator, but in football you have some people that bounce around too much and then you have people that don't move around, and every team gets a little bit different. A lot of it has to do with tweaking, so through the course of the League you meet and you interact and work with a lot of people, so you're refining on the field as much as you're refining off the field to see who's going to have a little more of an edge as far as refining talent. We're at that level when we're knocking at the door and our general manager and head coach are just trying everything they can to [find] what's going to push us over the edge.
SAINTS IN THE UK
This isn't the first time the Saints have played in the UK. Did you make the preseason trip back in 1990?
My mother thought we were too young to go. I was very displeased about that. I did go to Tokyo for the preseason against the Eagles [in 1993], but I really did want to go to London.
And do you come to the UK often?
Quite often, so there are a lot of things that I can tell the guys as far as this is where we want to be and this is what will be difficult or different. And it's a pleasure for me to bring my family and friends and fans and business partners over, to show them london, because I think it's one of the finest cities in the world. But I love the culture, the art, but not only for our football exchange – basically we're also going be using elements of cultural and business exchange as far as having some different events that cater towards attracting people to Louisiana and New Orleans.
With your Cajun heritage, would you like to bring the Saints for a game in France one day?
Absolutely. We talked about that as far as the international games, that we will look to other locations in Europe. Initially, we bid out the games so you had different cities and different countries, and London had the most favorable deal and situation as far as the new Wembley – and what a fantastic facility that is. Right now [the NFL is] committing to games outside the US each year. I won't be able to bring the Saints too quickly [to France] unless we speed up that process. In going early we'll have to wait until all the other teams go through the process.
Three seasons ago, Katrina forced the Saints to play a 'home' game in the Meadowlands. Was there any nervousness about traveling for another 'home' game so soon?
No because we've gone through so much. Originally it was a cautious thing, but the Dolphins and the Giants had such a great experience, and that word of mouth between the players meant our guys were kind of eager. They're excited to represent the country and the League.
Aside from the fact that the Giants made the trip last year – and it didn't seem to hurt them – are there any things the Saints are trying to accomplish in London as a team and organization, as opposed to merely being NFL representatives?
Our primary focus, as far as the league finding us attractive to go, and our premise behind making up for losing a home game, is to take this ... global stage ... and just showcase New Orleans and the recovery of our area and how far we've come. What a wonderful opportunity we have for people to visit as tourists or for people to expand their business – there's so much as far as oil and gas between companies in the UK and Louisiana – and things that are possible. So we just want to use this game as a catalyst for growth. If nothing else, to spread the word that there's no more water in New Orleans, it's dried up ...because we still get that! We've not underwater any more!
What is the confidence level heading into the 2008 season? Can I get a prediction?
I don't do those sort of sports predictions, but the energy and excitement and commitment from all of our players in the offseason is tremendous and they are great guys that are highly competitive. They tasted it, they've come within a game. It gets you a little giddy to feel that we have that kind of energy to go all the way.