The battle over letting fans back into sports stadiums has so far been a matter for state politicians and team officials, who have tried to strike a balance between concern for public health and desire for private profit. But no team has succeeded in pitting two different government against each other, in a “savvy negotiator creates leverage” way, to compete for a team’s presence — until now:
Fed up with COVID restrictions that have silenced the Mercedes Benz Superdome, the New Orleans Saints say they’re considering another venue that could bring back a little noise.
LSU and Baton Rouge say they are happy to lend out Tiger Stadium…
Officials with Visit Baton Rouge say even a few extra Saints fans could bring in big business for the city…
“Obviously it would be the biggest single event that would occur, or episode to occur in Baton Rouge during this pandemic,” said Paul Arrigo, President & CEO of Visit Baton Rouge.
Some background: New Orleans Mayor Latoya Cantrell has issued much tougher measures on public events, mask-wearing, and other Covid prevention methods than the rest of the state, creating what one disease expert called an unintentional controlled experiment in the efficacy of anti-pandemic rules. (So far Orleans Parish is doing significantly better than the rest of the state, both in terms of total cases and recent cases.) And the Saints, of course, play in the Superdome, which is of course indoors, which is of course where the virus goes to spread. So Cantrell has steadfastly refused to open the dome to fans:
“While the Saints’ request for a special exception to the city’s COVID-19 guidelines remains under consideration, allowing 20K people in an indoor space presents significant public health concerns,” Cantrell said in a statement.
“At present, no NFL stadium in the country with a fixed-roof facility is allowing such an exception,” her statement read. “We will continue to monitor the public health data, but cannot set an artificial timeline for how and when conditions may allow for the kind of special exemption being requested.”
Playing outdoors at LSU’s Tiger Stadium actually seems like a good solution here, at least if masked (when not eating or drinking) and distanced fans attending games outdoors turns out to be safe, which we still don’t know for sure. But Saints execs seem to be using the option less as a stop-gap measure than as a saber to rattle, issuing a statement saying that their “overwhelming preference is to play our games in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome with partial fan attendance” even while they’re exploring the option of playing in Baton Rouge.
And why should New Orleans care if the Saints play in Baton Rouge temporarily? All together now: ECONOMIC ACTIVITY!!!1!
“Baton Rouge is going to get all of that money. They’re going to get all the restaurant money, all the hotel money,” said [New Orleans native and Saints fan Andruski] Austin. “They’re going to get all of that.”
Okay, so maybe asking a random Saints fan for an economic impact statement wasn’t the most expert source you could use, WWL-TV. The Saints have five home games left this season, so you’re talking maybe 100,000 fans total going to games in Baton Rouge; most of them are either going to be local or make the hour-plus drive from New Orleans, so there’s probably not a ton of hotel money at stake. Maybe you’ll get some more restaurant visits, but at most you’re talking about a couple million dollars in spending — Baton Rouge has a 5.5% local sales tax, so maybe could see $100,000 or something in new taxes as a result, which probably wouldn’t be enough to pay for extra hospital services if even a small outbreak resulted from Saints fans piling into Fat Boy’s Pizza for a postgame meal.
It’s entirely possible that none of this will sway Mayor Cantrell, and also possible that the Saints will play games temporarily at LSU and everything will be fine. But this is another worrisome data point in the trend of sports teams seeing taking on increased Covid risks as a competitive advantage — and cities now being encouraged (by the local news media and random football fans, anyway) to do the same. Letting fans back into sporting events as soon as it’s safe is a great idea; letting them back in as soon as someone is worried that they’ll be leaving money on the table if they don’t is extremely not.