The musician and actor Harry Connick Jr. stood on Canal Street in New Orleans Thursday morning, a Saints cap on his head, discussing Hurricane Katrina's devastation of his hometown with Katie Couric of NBC's "Today" show.
Connick praised the strength of the city's people and said he had been asked if he could fathom spending three days in the Superdome, as thousands who did not evacuate the city had done. His reply reflected the decades of suffering that Saints fan have endured: "It can't be any worse than spending three hours in the Superdome watching some of those Saints games we've had in the past. We're tough people. We're diehard."
As the NFL and the Saints contemplate where the team will play its home games this season, and whether New Orleans will be able to support a pro football team again, it is worth noting that the Big Easy was Fox's second-highest-rated market last year with a 23.5, right behind Milwaukee.
That rating is a sign of the passion for the Saints in New Orleans, a city of 462,269 people -- smallish by NFL standards -- and what makes it even more remarkable is that there were five local television blackouts because the Saints did not sell out the Superdome, their home since 1975.
For the two home games that sold out last season, WVUE-TV, Fox's now inoperable local station, generated a 31.5 rating against San Francisco and a 32.5 against Tampa Bay. In the New Orleans market, each rating point equals only 6,721 TV households.
All that has changed. The city is flooded, looting is widespread and thousands may be dead. The region's economy has been ravaged and could take years to recover.
For now, the state of television viewing in New Orleans is a minor concern, but however many fans are capable of watching will crave the distraction and the bonding experience of watching games, as sports fans did after the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
"It will be vitally important for people to watch, however widely they are dispersed," said Marc Ganis, a sports-business consultant in Chicago. "It will help them come together, even though they're doing it electronically."
Fox is planning to televise Saints games to more than the 15 to 20 percent of the country that they are usually seen in, when combining the markets aligned with the Saints and their opponents. The Saints' natural turf in Louisiana is New Orleans, Baton Rouge, Alexandria and Monroe; in Mississippi, it is Biloxi and Jackson; and in Alabama, it is Mobile. Sometimes, Memphis is added to the mix.
Now, mindful of the dispersal of New Orleans residents who evacuated, Fox will add the Texas markets of Houston, San Antonio and Beaumont, and parts of Missouri for the Saints' opener on Sept. 11 against Carolina. The Texas cities had been scheduled to see the Bears-Redskins game in Week 1.
Dan Bell, a spokesman for Fox Sports, said, "Given the extraordinary circumstances, we'll try to make this consistent throughout the season."
Another factor that will affect TV viewing will be up to the NFL. If the Saints play home games in Baton Rouge, the league will have to lift the blackout to let as many local fans as possible watch. If the Saints eventually return to the damaged Superdome, they are not likely to sell out,given the depleted population, and the stadium would be more of a giant TV studio than a home field.
Greg Aiello, an NFL spokesman, said that until a decision was made on where the Saints would play, he could not discuss the blackout issue.
On CNBC Thursday, Commissioner Paul Tagliabue said that the NFL's assumption was that it would be "difficult if not impossible to play in New Orleans at all this year."
He added that "sport is a small part of life" and that the league would use its visibility "to support the national recovery program."
Where the Saints will play next year is also an open question. The team's owner, Tom Benson, has been perpetually dissatisfied with his lease, and Louisiana is less likely than ever to be able to pay the team an average of US$18.6 million a year. The last two years, the Superdome Commission had to borrow to pay Benson what it owed him. The team can escape its lease after this season but would have to pay the state US$81 million. The state can get out of the lease after the 2006 season.
The league is trying to build a stadium in Los Angeles or Anaheim before it chooses a team to occupy it or an owner.Benson said recently that he would not sell or move the team from New Orleans, but the city's decimation might force him to alter his plans.
"New Orleans has always been a marginal market for the NFL, and this disaster doesn't improve their situation," said John Moag, the investment banker who paved the Cleveland Browns' move to Baltimore.
"Mr. Benson was evaluating whether to staybefore this, but he may not have that luxury anymore."
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