Caesars Football Palace: A Story of Louisiana Politics That Worked
It just so happened that during the week that began with Edwin Edwards’ funeral a deal was finalized, nearby at the capitol in Baton Rouge, for the Superdome to be named after Caesars Entertainment. Edwards had been a supporter of both the Dome and casino gambling, though the two in the early days were akin to a shark and a dolphin; both are attractions in their own way, but neither should swim together.
There was a time when major league sports would not even allow a franchise in a town where there was legalized sports betting. At first that was just another way of saying, “no Las Vegas,” but now as casinos have dotted the map so too has sports betting – which is also legalized in Louisiana. The fear of gambling is obviously declining. Las Vegas, the ultimate no team city is now the home of a National Hockey League franchise; the Vegas Golden Knights, and last season the NFL’s former Oakland Riders moved to Sin City.
Of all of gambling’s sins the one that sports leagues seem less fearful of nowadays is control by organized crime. There are no longer guys named “Bugsy” running the casinos; although one, Bugsy Siegel, was credited with building Vegas’ first big time gambling destination; the Flamingo. In the early years the mafia could muster much control on the desert, but over time it succumbed to a more powerful force, big business. The latter tends to have more money; more qualified managers; more respect and more time away from jails.
(Curiously Edwards would spend eight years in the fed pen for a gambling related charge of influence pedaling by helping a business associate secure a riverboat gambling license. The crime though was more about political opportunity than organized crime. Edwards always argued that he did nothing wrong but even if he did, his offense was not while he was governor.)
Tom Benson told the story about a phone call he got in 1985 that certainly changed his life. It was from Governor Edwards who told Benson that New Orleans was in danger of losing the Saints. Original owner John Mecom wanted out and a group from Jacksonville was stalking to buy away the franchise. The governor said he was trying to put together a meeting of local investors and asked Benson to attend. With a laugh, Benson would recall that he went to the meeting and the only potential buyer present was him. Nevertheless, a deal emerged cobbling together several minority owners and Benson with the majority. It did not look very promising—a little known car dealer moving to the big leagues, where the money people play hard, and backed by an inexperienced team.
Yet, we all know what happened. There would be dismal seasons and some that were promising plus the glorious moment in Miami when Sean Payton lifted the ultimate trophy.
Now, Benson’s wife Gayle runs the team’s empire. The money from the name sale, reportedly $138 million, will go entirely to the Saints who will put it toward the Dome’s state-funded renovation.
Casino gambling; the Saint’s future; the Dome’s condition, sports betting and Edwards’ legacy all came together during an unusual week in which fate called a Hail Mary. Sometimes outcomes are so unpredictable—like the roll of the dice.
BOOK ANNOUNCEMENT: Errol’s Laborde’s books, “New Orleans: The First 300 Years” and “Mardi Gras: Chronicles of the New Orleans Carnival” (Pelican Publishing Company, 2017 and 2013), are available at local bookstores and at book websites.
WATCH INFORMED SOURCES, FRIDAYS AT 7 P.M., REPEATED AT 9:30 A.M. SUNDAYS.WYES-TV, CH. 12.