The joyful civic intoxication that marked the latter half of last year’s regular NFL season and playoff action for Saints fans was so intense it’s hard to remember that New Orleans wasn’t quite in that mode at this point last year. Sure, there was the usual excitement among Who Dats and football faithful as the 2009 season began, but it wasn’t until the Saints started really rolling along as serious contenders, defeating formidable teams and finding answers to crucial challenges, that black-and-gold exhilaration really blossomed across the city, turning up in seemingly every conversation and, just as tellingly, on every retail counter.
But this season, clearly, is different. If the preseason seemed restrained, I think that’s because we were all just holding our breath, not wanting to start too soon. But this week all bets are off. Thursday will mark the start of the most anticipated Saints season, the season when our team defends its national championship, and you’d have to be sequestered in some lead-lined box to miss the excitement. It’s been progressively building since the final whistle of last week’s preseason finale, which officially triggered the countdown to the real thing.
My feeling is that New Orleans will wake up on Thursday morning feeling like it’s the playoffs all over again, that the euphoria from the end of last year’s season will explode like a room full of vapors reignited by a spark. By lunchtime, people everywhere will begin setting into motion their escape plans from work, and soon thereafter downtown will be awash in team colors and fleurs-de-lis.
Naturally, every sports bar in town is gearing up for the party to start early, and probably every regular bar or even restaurant with a TV is doing the same. But this time around, there are some new options to get going this season.
Because we are –– ahem –– the national champions, the NFL will hold its season kickoff hoopla here, including the league’s Mardi Gras-style parade along Elysian Fields and Decatur Street and its concert in Jackson Square, starring the Dave Matthews Band and Taylor Swift. It’s a safe bet that the French Quarter will be a festive place to catch some Who Dat spirit before the game as these events unfold.
Saints fans –– and intrepid fans of other teams in town to cheer our opponents –– also now have Champions Square, the new festival grounds built just outside the Superdome. Using space reclaimed from the shuttered New Orleans Centre mall, this new Game Day amenity has a stage for live bands, a huge screen to broadcast pregame shows, food booths representing local restaurants and endless opportunities to find a drink. Dome vendors patrol the grounds, selling $5 cans of Bud from their icy coolers, and there are draft beer vendors and an indoor bar with air conditioning and cocktails. Champions Square made its debut during the preseason, and it proved a very fun place for fans to gather and get into the swing of the day with great local food, amped-up Who Dat camaraderie and an inspirational view of the Dome.
Champions Square is free and open to the public, and no game tickets are required for entry. The grounds open at 4:30 p.m. on Thursday, and local band Bucktown Allstars will perform for the crowds.