Football Jackpot

December 22 2011 | Latest News
New Orleans will reap financial rewards from 3 bowl games, the Saints...

12/18/11 6:53AM

The Times- Picayune

Jaquetta White, The Times-Picayune

Beginning with Saturday night's R+L Carriers New Orleans Bowl, three college football games are expected to bring at least 160,000 visitors to New Orleans over a three-week stretch that culminates Jan. 9, when LSU plays Alabama in the BCS championship game. The other major game during that period is the Allstate Sugar Bowl on Jan. 3.

The city last hosted all three games in 2007-08. Hospitality industry officials are projecting an economic impact in excess of $425 million.

"We're expecting not only hotel occupancy, but also restaurant meals and nightlife spending to be at an all-time high," said Stephen Perry, president of the New Orleans Convention & Visitors Bureau.

The Sheraton New Orleans sold out for all three games shortly after the teams competing were announced earlier this month.

"This is one of those situations where people are jockeying to get rooms when they find out their teams are coming," said Bill McCreary, general manager of the Starwood Properties in New Orleans, which include the Sheraton and W Hotel brands. "I have more friends in Alabama than I've ever had."

The Hilton New Orleans Riverside still had a few rooms left for the Sugar Bowl earlier in the week, but had sold out for this weekend and the national championship game, General Manager Fred Sawyers said.

"The BCS, the demand is far beyond anything I've ever seen," said Sawyers, whose hotel is hosting a team for each of the BCS games. "The waiting list for cancellations is longer than I've ever seen."

The demand means most hotels are requiring three-night minimum stays for the days surrounding the games.

The economic impact of the games on the local economy will stretch beyond hotels and restaurants. The Ernest N. Morial Convention Center, for instance, is turning two of its parking lots into RV parks for the BCS championship game. One will be dedicated to LSU fans, the other to Alabama. Bob Johnson, the center's general manager, said he's also thinking about setting up a general store inside the center that fans can access to buy things like sausage for tailgating.

"It's more about providing a service," Johnson said of the RV parks. "But if we can generate some revenue, that will be good, too."

More revenue expected

Paul Hoolahan, chief executive officer of the Sugar Bowl, which is responsible for both the Sugar Bowl and this year's BCS championship game, said he expects the economic impact of those two games to "significantly exceed" what was generated five years ago, the last time New Orleans hosted both the Sugar Bowl and BCS championship game.

In 2007, when the University of Hawaii took on Georgia in the Sugar Bowl and LSU played Ohio State in the BCS championship game, economic impact totaled about $400 million for the two events, Hoolahan said.

"Our anticipation is it will soar north of that based on all early indicators," he said. "We're expecting an onslaught of people."

For the BCS championship game, that's largely because the schools are within driving distance of New Orleans. When purchasing a plane ticket is not a factor, Hoolahan said, more people are likely to come and the amounts they spend increase.

"If they are able to find lodging in and around New Orleans, they're coming," Hoolahan said. "We just anticipate this to a be a blockbuster in every dimension."

Any concern that having LSU in a championship game would depress that impact has been unfounded, tourism executives said.

Whenever LSU plays a bowl game in New Orleans one question is always whether it's a good or bad thing for the tourism industry. The worry is that the school's fans and alumni wouldn't spend as much money as those who have to travel from farther away. Because the school is just more than an hour's drive from New Orleans, hoteliers worry that they won't make a long weekend of their stay in New Orleans and may avoid hotels altogether, opting to stay with friends.

This year, however, many in the industry appear to think having the school play in the championship is a positive.

"The LSU fans want to make a full weekend out of it," Sawyers said.

Also not of concern is that a rematch between LSU and Alabama, SEC West division rivals and ranked Nos. 1 and 2 nationally, would be poorly attended.

Rematch no problem

That the two teams have already played each other during regular season this year hasn't seemed to dampen any enthusiasm for the game or depress ticket sales and hotel bookings.

"Everybody and both of their fan bases realize that no matter what's happened before, there is only one national championship," Perry said.

Meanwhile, the Sugar Bowl features the Virginia Tech Hokies, ranked 11th, and the Michigan Wolverines, ranked No. 13.

Industry leaders are expecting Michigan fans to travel especially well because the team has not participated in a Bowl Championship Series game since 2007. The school hasn't played in a Sugar Bowl since 1984. Virginia Tech played in the Sugar Bowl in 2005.

"Michigan has had several years where they have not been the powerhouse that they were this year," Perry said. "There has been a lot of pent-up demand for them to be in a BCS Bowl."

Ticket sales are bearing out that theory, Hoolahan said. Virginia Tech Athletic Director Jim Weaver told the Washington Post this week that the school's athletic department would only be able to sell about 10,000 of the 17,500 tickets it was allotted. But, the tickets are likely to be snapped up in the open market, where they sold out before the competing teams were announced.

"Michigan looks like they're in a position to be the stronger of the two," Hoolahan said. "But they are both going to be really good performers for us. They are big schools with very significant brand appeal."

Fans of the teams are not alone in making plans to travel to New Orleans for the game. As the BCS championship game, specifically, has grown into a larger event, it has increasingly become a hot ticket for corporate executives, said Sam Soni, president of PrimeSport, the official hospitality provider for the two BCS bowls. The company is selling in-stadium hospitality packages that include a ticket to the game, as well as food, beverages and entertainment.

Soni said he expects to sell 20 percent to 30 percent more packages this year, in part because the game is being played in New Orleans.

"We're finding a lot of support for the event in New Orleans," Soni said. "We're seeing a lot of customers that want to be in New Orleans. It's a great destination for us."

N.O. Bowl interest up

The smallest of the games, Saturday night's New Orleans Bowl, was expected to draw 40,000 visitors and produce an economic impact of $25 million, said Kelly Schultz, a spokeswoman for the New Orleans Convention and Visitors Bureau.

The game featured Louisiana-Lafayette against San Diego State. Because the schools are part of smaller, less-known conferences, the game does not draw the same attention or attendance as the BCS games. But tourism leaders say bookings were surprisingly strong this year.

"The matchup for the New Orleans Bowl is the best ever in terms of demand," Sawyers said.

The local economy also will be buoyed by even more football, as the Saints will play two division rivals, the Atlanta Falcons on Dec. 26 and the Carolina Panthers on Jan. 1, during the same three-week stretch as the bowl games.

The game against the Falcons is a special treat because it occurs the day after Christmas when local hotels are usually empty.

"I'm calling the string of events just unprecedented," said Mark Romig, chief executive of the New Orleans Tourism and Marketing Corp.

It's not just the immediate economic impact that the tourism industry is eyeing, however, Romig said.

Thirty-million viewers will tune in to the Sugar Bowl and the BCS championship game, Romig said. Romig is looking forward to the various segments during the game in which commentators talk about the city and air shots of various points of interest around town between plays.

"The impact of impressions of New Orleans in a positive light are invaluable," Romig said. "What happens is you have a three-hour-long commercial. Those are things we'd never have the budget to handle."

Romig and other industry leaders also are working on a plan to make immediate repeat visitors out of the thousands of people who will be in town for the games. The "bounce-back" plan would reward hotel guests in town during the games with a coupon for a discounted hotel stay during the slower summer months this year.