There probably was a time in New Orleans when the onset of winter holidays wasn’t associated with sports, but such a time is hard to imagine today.
For decades, Thanksgiving has drawn thousands of football fans to the city for the post-holiday Bayou Classic, which annually pits Southwestern Athletic Conference rivals Grambling State University and Southern University in the Superdome.
Weeks later, thousands more fans gather in the Dome for the post-New Year’s holiday thriller, the Sugar Bowl, one of the oldest and most popular college football contests in the country.
These games and the smaller events packaged around them pack an economic punch, particularly as they occur during a period that’s otherwise sluggish in terms of visitor numbers.
In recent years, the city has sweetened that holiday punch by adding the New Orleans Bowl, which matches the champion of the Sun Belt Conference against a regional pick from Conference USA. The R+L Carriers New Orleans Bowl will kick off at the Superdome this year on Dec. 19. The Allstate Sugar Bowl Classic unfolds there on Jan. 2, 2009.
By some estimates, the Sugar Bowl injects at least $80 million annually into the local area, while the much younger New Orleans Bowl is worth $15 million to $20 million, depending on which teams are participating.
The Greater New Orleans Sports Foundation, which keeps tabs on the economic impact of such events, is keenly aware of the power of sports to fuel the local economy. For the past two decades, the foundation has focused on drawing more sports events to the city and raising the profile of New Orleans as a sports town.
Although football is an obvious focal point, the foundation has succeeded over the years in broadening the city’s reach with NCAA playoffs and Final Four events, national track-and-field championships and Olympic trials, gymnastic competitions and even sport-fishing championships. And this spring, for the first time ever, New Orleans will play a role in identifying some of the toughest athletes in the world.
In April 2009 the city will host a qualifying event leading to the national “half Ironman” competition, an endurance contest that singles out some of the most serious runners, bicyclists and swimmers around the globe.
The “full” Ironman triathlon began 30 years ago as a challenge to a group of Navy Seals to find out who was the fittest among them. Originally in Hawaii, it combined the Waikiki Rough Water swim, the Around Oahu Bike Race and the Honolulu Marathon – a 2.4-mile swim, a 112-mile bike ride and a 26.2-mile run. The Ironman quickly became one of the most recognized endurance events in the world.
In 2006, a group of sponsors spun off a related event called the Ironman 70.3 Series. The competition consists of a 1.2-mile swim, a 56-mile bike race and a 13.1-mile run, which adds up to 70.3 miles of total racing.
In just two years the half-Ironman has become the fastest growing triathlon series in the world. Some 30 events worldwide qualify athletes for the Ironman World Championship 70.3 in Clearwater, Fla., every November, and this year one of those events will occur in New Orleans.
“It’s a very prestigious event,” says Jay Cicero, president and CEO of the Greater New Orleans Sports Foundation.
Noting that Ironman “is a very strong brand in the world of triathlon,” he says it’s expected to draw 2,500 competitors from far corners. “It also establishes New Orleans as a potential host for a full Ironman down the road,” which could attract 10,000 to 15,000 participants, he says.
Cicero says that, more than three years after Katrina, New Orleans is still battling the impression in some circles that the city is crippled. “Our job is to accurately convey the message that, yes, we can host these big events.”
The city has bolstered its image every year, he says. “When you’ve hosted the NCAA Men’s First and Second Rounds, a couple of New Orleans Bowls, a couple of Sugar Bowls, the BCS National Championship, an NBA All-Star game and the Bayou Classics – plus nonsporting events like Jazz Fest and the Essence Festival – when people come here and see for themselves, they understand,” he says.
The NCAA recently demonstrated growing confidence in New Orleans by awarding it the Men’s Final Four for 2012 and the Women’s Final Four for 2013.
Meanwhile, in 2010 the city is slated to again host the men’s basketball NCAA first and second playoff rounds – events Cicero says carry an economic value of about $15 million. The AAU Jr. Olympic Games could produce a $30 million impact in 2011 and the Bassmaster’s Classic fishing competition could drop a $25 million prize on New Orleans when it returns in that year. In 2012, the SEC Men’s Basketball Tournament (estimated $15 million impact) comes to New Orleans. And in 2016, the AAU Jr. Olympic Games returns.
Of course, the event every major city in the country salivates over is the Super Bowl.
New Orleans, which has long been a favorite Super Bowl site among decision-makers in the National Football League, has had to cool its heels in the post-Katrina environment. But Cicero says that prize, too, could return. The key: a firm commitment by the New Orleans Saints to remain in New Orleans for the long term.
“If the Saints and the state of Louisiana agree to an extension of their current contract beyond the 2010 season, I feel confident that the NFL would invite New Orleans to bid on a Super Bowl, possibly as early as 2013,” Cicero says.
New Orleans last hosted a Super Bowl in 2002. Its estimated economic impact: $350 million.