PHOENIX (AP) -What in the world is the NFL thinking, taking away a home game from the still-struggling city of New Orleans?
Just three years after Hurricane Katrina forced the Saints to play an entire season on the road, they'll head to London next season to face the San Diego Chargers in ``European Vacation, The Sequel.''
The NFL made it official during Roger Goodell's state of the league news conference, announcing the Saints as the designated home team for an Oct. 26 game at Wembley Stadium - about 4,626 miles east of the Superdome.
Goodell touted the announcement with great fanfare, saying it's another major step in the league's push to broaden its appeal overseas. (I know, such an important issue for a league that basically prints money in the United States.) I squirmed in my seat, wondering what it means for the Big Easy, still one of my favorite cities in the world.
Despite plenty of much-publicized stumbles, New Orleans has taken significant steps toward recovery since the levees broke. The French Quarter is up and running. The famous street car system is largely back on track. It's hard to find a bad meal.
Still, huge swaths of the city are uninhabited. The population is far away from its pre-Katrina levels. Crime is rampant, and luring back tourists remains a major challenge.
The Saints are a major part of the rebuilding effort, providing hope that things are getting better. Every home game the last two years was sold out.
So, why send them off to jolly ol' England on a weekend they should be playing at the Superdome (with Drew Brees facing his old team as an added attraction)?
``Hypothetically, it adds 30 percent to your business,'' says Scott Escarra, one of the managers at Cafe du Monde, when reached by telephone. ``A lot of the locals are complaining about losing business. Everything from parking to restaurants to merchandising is lost.
``When you look at a 68,000-seat arena that's going to be dormant on that day,'' he adds, ``it leaves a bit of a sour taste.''
Goodell gives this explanation: The Saints and the city wanted the game in London because it's a chance to reach Europeans - especially the British - who once accounted for a major chunk of the tourism business.
oing to be a great benefit to the community economically.''
You know what would have benefited the community even more? Letting the Saints keep their eight home games, but send them to London as the VISITING team.
I propose that idea to Archie Manning, the former Saints quarterback and one of the city's most famous residents.
``Hmmm, I never thought about that,'' he says. ``I wonder if the NFL thought about that?''
Manning knows as well as anyone how far his city has come - and how far it has to go.
``I travel a lot and do a lot of corporate speaking,'' he says. ``I tell people all the time ... we need to get you back. We're ready for you. A lot of people around the country have two perceptions: 'Y'all are still underwater down there, right?' No, we're not underwater. Others say: 'Y'all are back to normal down there.' I tell them, 'No, not even close.'''
Mary Beth Romig, head of the New Orleans Metropolitan Convention and Visitors Bureau, is trying to look at the potential benefits of the London game - not what it's going to be costing the city.
B.K. (Before Katrina, the dividing line in which all life in New Orleans is now measured), the United Kingdom sent some 100,000 tourists a year to the Big Easy. Since the waters receded, the numbers are less than half, even though the city and state have an office in London.
``We've had a tough time telling our story of recovery and how we really are,'' Romig says by phone. ``This is going to be a great chance to be up close and personal on the ground, against the backdrop of the New Orleans Saints.''
Wouldn't it have been even better if the Saints were the visiting team in London?
Romig pauses before saying, ``I can't comment on that.''
Here's another idea: The league should commit to putting a future Super Bowl in New Orleans, which, after all, just hosted two huge college games on back-to-back weekends and was the most popular site for the NFL championship game before Katrina.
I ask Goodell about that possibility. He says the city has yet to make a bid. Apparently, there's still that thorny issue of the Saints' lease, which pays car-salesman-of-an-owner Tom Benson a $23.5 million annual subsidy but runs out after the 2010 season.
Then again, the NFL once awarded New York a Super Bowl based on drawings of a Manhattan stadium that was never built. Why not give one to New Orleans, with the caveat it works out a new lease that persuades Benson to keep from moving his team to Los Angeles or San Antonio or, perhaps, London. (Here's a negotiating tip: Get the biggest armored truck you can find, fill it with money and send it to the Benson estate.)
Back at Cafe du Monde, Escarra looks for the good side to losing a Saints game. Maybe, he says, some big-time convention will rent out the Superdome on the weekend of Oct. 26.
``The weather is extremely nice down here at that time of year,'' he said.

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