Sporting Events create a larger economic impact than first thought

Posted on: January 9 2012
Nine sporting events make New Orleans "Sports Meca".

January 6, 2012
Greg Bishop, New York Times

NEW ORLEANS — On Friday, players from Alabama and Louisiana State answered questions on the field at the Superdome, where S-A-I-N-T-S spread across the end zones and the B.C.S. national championship game logo decorated midfield. Such is life here, at the center of the American sports universe.

New Orleans anticipated 250,000 visitors and an economic impact of $500 million over the two weeks of events.

From Dec. 26 through Monday, the Superdome and the neighboring New Orleans Arena have hosted, or will host, nine sporting events. This includes two college football bowl games, including Monday night’s championship; three Saints games, including Saturday’s playoff contest against Detroit; and four N.B.A. matchups featuring the hometown Hornets.

This confluence of events, an athletic Mardi Gras of sorts, played out all over town. Crimson Tide fans waited for beignets at Café du Monde, while nearby a musician played jazz in a Saints sweatshirt. Lions supporters downed bottles of Abita at Bullet’s Sports Bar. Hotels turned on “no vacancy” signs and a parking garage downtown charged $100 a night.

“We’re going to see our city filled to the brim, to a magnitude beyond what we’ve ever seen, even with Super Bowls,” said Doug Thornton, senior vice president for the stadium and arena division at the arena management company SMG and the de facto director of Louisiana sports.

At the center of it all, on Poydras Street, the Superdome lorded over downtown, a symbol, always, of this city, but lately, perhaps, of something more. Home of the Saints, host of the largest-ever indoor concert, synonymous with the devastation wrought by Hurricane Katrina, the stadium is rich with history, some of it dark.

Thornton stayed at the Superdome when Katrina hit in August 2005, when the roof ripped and water leaked in and about 25,000 people sought refuge. The conditions were later described as decrepit.

For Taylor Beery, a native who worked as policy director for President George W. Bush’s Office of Gulf Coast Rebuilding, the two sports arenas “were the most obvious and emotional examples of the devastation Katrina caused.”

Local officials decided to renovate the Superdome, at the cost of $336 million, half of which came from federal recovery funds. Beery said he understood the commotion the renovation caused, with hospitals and schools also in dire need of repair.

But he argues, as do Thornton and Mayor Mitch Landrieu, that the Superdome has served as a catalyst for recovery. In the two-week bonanza of sporting events, city officials expect 250,000 visitors and an economic impact of $500 million. This, Thornton said, is validation of the rebuilding effort. Beery called the Superdome a “symbol of optimism.”

Landrieu said, “It’s an example of what resurgence looks like.”

In 2004, according to Mark Romig, a local tourism official, more than 10 million visitors descended on New Orleans. Katrina, he said, “knocked us to our knees.”

Then came the economic downturn and the Gulf Coast oil spill — one hit after the next.

Romig’s father is the Saints’ longtime public-address announcer. His brother also works for the team. He saw the inspiring power of sports when the Saints won the Super Bowl after the 2009 season. He watched the growth continue, up to 8.3 million visitors in 2010.

Early Friday, the local writer Brett Michael Dykes, known as “Cajun Boy,” sipped coffee at Mojo Coffee House on Magazine Street, wearing a Saints sweatshirt with an L.S.U. T-shirt visible underneath. He noted that the surrounding area, once barren, is now thriving with local businesses, from the Great American Alligator Museum to the Garden District Pub, where waitresses wore shirts with L.S.U. across the front.

“There’s an energy, a vibrancy, that is palpable, that you can feel almost when you step off the plane here,” he said. “It’s a lot different than it was pre-Katrina.”

Dykes had spent the morning planning two bar-hopping routes with 30 friends for the Saturday and Monday games. He worried that too many pundits had picked the Saints to win the Super Bowl. He celebrated the Tigers’ thus-far undefeated season. In recent days, he said he told friends to relish this long weekend, the likes of which may never occur again.

The logistical tasks fell to Thornton and his crew of 185 full-time employees and 1,500 part-time workers. They planned for this weekend over the past six months.

Among the tasks: removing 55,000 tons of trash between games and cleaning the 72,000-seat stadium; using detergent and high-powered gasoline brushes to wash the paint from the field, then repainting and drying it; replacing alternating signage in the stands and on the field; hosting different, competing television networks and their compounds for both games; restocking the concession stands, which do about $1.5 million in business each game; and restocking the warehouses.

The stretch that started with a Saints game in which quarterback Drew Brees broke the N.F.L.’s single-season passing record will end Monday night with the Bowl Championship Series game, at which point Thornton allowed he would take a “10-minute break.”

That dizzying slate, though, marks only the beginning, because those sites will also host the Southeastern Conference’s men’s basketball tournament in March, the men’s Final Four in March and April and both the Super Bowl and the women’s Final Four in 2013.

This stretch, Landrieu hopes, will highlight a changed city, or a changing one, where property values are up, unemployment is down and recovery continues.

“We’ve never had a run of consecutive major events in the history of New Orleans,” Landrieu said. “It’s maybe the most significant run of sporting events any major city has ever had. For a place that was on its back and dead less than five years ago, we feel like it’s our time to shine.”

As this week wore on, more fans began to fill the French Quarter and surrounding areas. Hotel rooms, even budget ones, required a three-night minimum stay. The teams arrived in grand fashion at the airport, where bands played and fans held signs and players later marveled that a helicopter followed their buses into town.

L.S.U. Coach Les Miles said the bus ride brought back memories of Katrina, adding “the attachment to this city is one that this team really feels.”

That goes for Robert LeBlanc, who served on the Super Bowl host committee and helps run Ste. Marie, a restaurant two blocks from the Superdome that serves grillades and grits and duck and waffles.

Still, in the center of the sports universe, he plans to cheer on the Tigers and the Saints. He wants Alabama fans to enjoy themselves — until kickoff.

“I wouldn’t say New Orleans is there yet,” he said. “But we’re working on it.”