New Orleans Saints owner and executive vice president Rita Benson LeBlanc kicked off the CTAM Summit here with an emotional retrospective of the team's post-Katrina trajectory - capped off by the 2009 Super Bowl-winning season that became the symbol of resurrection for a hurricane-ravaged city.
Noting that few cities have endured such "calamitous natural and man-made disasters in such a short period of time," Benson LeBlanc noted that New Orleans nevertheless defied the odds and the "journey of our football team became the metaphor for that transformation."
That story of transformation played out on national television in front of audiences in the millions, making the Saints into America's football team.
"We wouldn't be here today without staying relative in the media," she said.
The Saints were instrumental in ESPN's recent Rise Up: New Orleans documentary, which chronicled new athletic facilities for Eleanor McMain Secondary School in Orleans Parish.
Benson LeBlanc, who was introduced by ESPN executive vice president of sales and marketing Sean Bratches, also recalled the Saints' 2006 home opener at the Louisiana Superdome, the first game played at the stadium after necessary repairs in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. The game was set to be broadcast on ESPN's Monday Night Football and the network loomed ever large in making sure that the game was a fitting inaugural for the Superdome and the team.
ESPN, she said, "made that game happen. Every detail of that night made it a mini-Super Bowl."
Green Day and U2 performed. Attendance was a sellout crowd of more than 70,000. The Saints' victory over the Atlanta Falcons became the most-watched installment of ESPN's MNF at the time.
"We rebuilt a major part of our city and we showed that we could get back up," she said.
On their way to last season's history-making Super Bowl XLIV, the Saints, said Benson LeBlanc "proved that small-market teams can have global relevance and a national following."
"We changed the conversation in New Orleans," she added. "I no longer have people asking me if we have a future or not. Finally people want to question me about how they can get involved."
It wasn't always that way. In the months after Hurricane Katrina, when the Saints home at the Superdome, which had become a refugee camp for survivors, was rendered unusable. The team could not play any games at the Superdome for the entire 2005 season and the team's future in New Orleans was in question.
Since then, the Saints organization - its players, coaches and executives - have become leaders in the recovery effort, raising millions of dollars, working with local businesses to rebuild neighborhoods and leading youth-outreach initiatives.
Players are encouraged - if not required - to embrace the city and make it their home. They are, however, required to attend the annual New Orleans Saints "crawfish bowl" where they "learn to peel their own crawfish," Benson LeBlanc said.
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