The tenth Super Bowl played in New Orleans, and the first since Hurricane Katrina devastated the city in 2005, will kickoff in a stadium that has received more than $470 million in public support since the storm, as taxpayers have footed the bill for renovations and upgrades in the face of threats from ownership and the National Football League to move the team to another city.
In the aftermath of Katrina, New Orleans was desperate to keep the Saints from skipping town. The NFL and Saints owner Tom Benson seem to have taken advantage of that desperation, leveraging it into hundreds of millions of dollars in public support — from the city, state, and federal governments — for renovations to the decimated Superdome, which housed Katrina refugees during and after the storm. In 2009, the state committed $85 million more to keep the Saints in town and attempt to woo another Super Bowl, all while signing a lease worth $153 million in a nearby building owned by Benson.
While investors and Benson have profited from the deals, taxpayers haven’t been as lucky, Bloomberg reports:
Talks headed by then-NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue led to a plan to fix and renovate the Superdome with $121 million from the state, $44 million from the Louisiana Stadium and Exposition District, which oversees the facility, $156 million from the Federal Emergency Management Agency and $15 million from the league. Blanco said a rushed bond deal followed.
Ultimately, the financing cost the district more than three times its $44 million commitment, according to data compiled by Bloomberg from state documents and interviews. [...]
In April 2009, Louisiana negotiated a new lease to secure Benson’s promise to keep the team in New Orleans through 2025. The state made $85 million in fresh Superdome improvements, adding luxury seating and moving the press box. A company owned by Benson, Zelia LLC, bought the 26-story tower next to the stadium that had stood mostly vacant since Katrina and renovated it. At the time, Benson put the total cost at about $85 million. The state then signed a $153 million, 20-year lease for office space in the building, which now houses 51 state agencies, according to the Louisiana Administration Division. [...]
“A lot of folks in New York made a ton of money,” [former state Treasurer John] Kennedy said. “Louisiana taxpayers didn’t do so well.”
The Superdome certainly needed renovations following Katrina. But its original construction was financed solely by taxpayers, and Benson, who is worth roughly $1.6 billion, didn’t contribute and repeatedly hinted that the Saints would move to San Antonio, Los Angeles, or another city unless taxpayers ponied up. Kennedy, the state treasurer, told Bloomberg he went into negotiations with the NFL and Benson “with a gun against my head.”
Benson isn’t alone. Minnesota Vikings owner Zygi Wylf used the threat of relocation to help secure public funding for a new stadium, and owners across the NFL are doing the same. Owners of the Miami Dolphins are using the promise of future Super Bowls (even though the event rarely provides the promised economic boost) to lure more money from taxpayers who are already on the hook for the city’s new baseball stadium.
The NFL’s program that provides loans to teams for new facilities is contingent on taxpayer support for at least part of the cost, and only one current NFL facility was built without some sort of public funding.