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Pact keeps Saints from marching out

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BATON ROUGE, La. — A long, hard day of discussion paid off for the state of Louisiana and the New Orleans Saints.

Saints owner Tom Benson, Gov. Mike Foster and negotiators for both sides spent five hours working out a deal expected to keep the team in New Orleans until at least 2010.

"If it turns out the market is simply too weak, then the Saints will probably be provided early exit ... possibly after 2003," said Steve Perry, the governor's chief of staff. "But neither party believes that will ever be a reality because we're going to study it and get it right the first time."

The agreement in principle reached Monday would provide the Saints with $12.5 million in guaranteed operating cash to ensure the team's financial stability. The state also would continue what was called "an escalating inducement package" until a new stadium or renovated Louisiana Superdome is functional.

"The truth is, if we want an NFL team in the league's smallest market, we're going to have to participate and help," Foster said.

Foster will appoint a committee to study whether to build a new stadium or totally renovate the Louisiana Superdome, where the Saints play. The committee will report no later than January 2003.

Benson has been asking the state to help the Saints move from last among NFL teams in revenue to at least 18th. He also reiterated his belief the Saints eventually need to move out of the Superdome and into a new stadium.

Arnold Fielkow, the Saints' director of administration, said the money in the deal would leave the team "a little below average," but still able to be competitive in the next two years. Perry said he thought it would make the team 18th in gross income, 13th in net income.

When the report is issued in January 2003, if a new stadium or Superdome re-engineering and financing agreement is not reached, the state will offer an escalating inducement package to keep the team in the Dome through 2010.

The agreement also gives the Saints the right to abandon New Orleans by the 2004 season if the team believes the area's market has deteriorated and it can't make money here, and if no agreement is reached on the team's future home field.

"We don't think that's going to happen," Perry said. "We're not going to let it happen. We want the Saints here."

If the Saints leave, the exit fee of $25 million they now face would be greatly increased. Perry wouldn't give a specific amount, but said he thought the fee would double. If the Saints left, they also would have to repay much of the $12.5 million in guaranteed money they would receive annually until then.

Negotiators have been meeting for five months to discuss ways to make the team more profitable and keep it in New Orleans. Negotiations appeared on the point of breaking down last month when each side accused the other of bad faith. Benson said he was considering either moving the team to Mississippi or selling it.