3 Bowl Games Highlight Sudden Boom For New Orleans

Bowl bacchanal starts Friday night with the New Orleans Bowl

Dec. 20, 2007

NEW ORLEANS (AP) - By the time LSU or Ohio State is crowned national champion in the Superdome, nearly $500 million will have been injected into the New Orleans economy by a triple dose of bowl games.

The estimate by University of New Orleans economist Janet F. Speyrer envisions hotels and restaurants, Bourbon Street clubs and French Quarter shops packed with visitors.

The bowl bacchanal starts Friday night with the New Orleans Bowl, matching Memphis and Florida Atlantic. Then in comes Georgia vs. Hawaii in the Sugar Bowl on Jan. 1, followed by the BCS title game between the Tigers and the Buckeyes on Jan. 7.

The bowl bucks will fatten what has been the busiest event schedule in New Orleans since Hurricane Katrina struck in 2005, and it only gets better in the early months of 2008.

"Our sports business is better than it's ever been, with the Hornets back, the sold-out Saints games and these bowls," said Bill Curl, spokesman for the Superdome and the adjacent New Orleans Arena. "That was the reason we worked so hard to bring the Superdome back quickly. It's both a symbol of our recovery and a draw for business for the city."

The stadium will be the first to host three college bowls in one postseason. Heavily damaged in Katrina, it opened 13 months later after a $184 million renovation.

Boom times began just after Thanksgiving when people crowded into the city for the Bayou Classic, the annual football game between Southern and Grambling State universities. Although the crowd was smaller than pre-Katrina, it still filled 63 percent of the hotel rooms in the city and over 53,000 seats at the game.

After the bowls come Mardi Gras, the NBA All-Star game, the NCAA women's regional basketball tournament and a dozen major conventions to feed the hospitality industry.

Between the Bayou Classic and the NCAA women's regional March 28-31, more than 1 million people will visit the Superdome and Arena, said Curl.



Through Tuesday, about 29,000 tickets had been sold for the New Orleans Bowl.

"Attendance may be down a bit for Florida Atlantic because of the distance," said Billy Ferrante, executive director of the bowl. "And Memphis started slow but seems to have picked up."

Although the New Orleans Bowl will only contribute about $15 million to the economy, it and the other bowls have a much bigger impact, said Jay Cicero, president of the Greater New Orleans Sports Foundation.

"The exposure the city gets, the positive news, the broadcast components to each of these games, provides a big boost for the area's return," Cicero said. "People see how well the city handles these events and they can tell we're back and can handle their event."

For the Sugar Bowl and BCS championship game, both of which are sold out, the Dome will seat 72,000.

"Believe me, if we could squeeze anymore in we would," said Duane Lewis, spokesman for the Sugar Bowl, which is handling both games.

In addition to fans, the Sugar Bowl will draw about 500 members of the media, the title game close to 1,000, Lewis said, assuring the events and the city plenty of national attention.

"All of those reporters are going to see a city with the hotels packed, the French Quarter busy, everybody having a good time," Curl said. "That is publicity we need now to show the world we're back."

While many residential areas - the Lower 9th Ward, Gentilly and eastern New Orleans among them - still show the full force of Katrina, which flooded 80 percent of the city, the popular tourist destinations show little signs of the storm.

The French Quarter was barely damaged by Katrina. Other tourist draws are open and the streetcar is running along much of the St. Charles Avenue route that passes the city's stately mansions.

Although people don't always think of sporting events as big business, Cicero said, it is.

"Consider what it takes to put on a convention and what it takes to put on a bowl game - quality facilities, hotels and restaurants, experienced management folks locally and financial support. We have all those elements here," he said. "People are about to see how we do things, just as well as before the hurricane."

As for the payday, businesses are already counting up the dividends.

"It's going to be huge, major, a real shot in the arm for our industry," said Jim Funk, president of the Louisiana Restaurant Association. "We've been pretty busy since the Bayou Classic, but the Sugar Bowl and week later the championship game will be a big boom in a normally slow time."

For the next three weeks in New Orleans, getting a restaurant reservation or a hotel room will be difficult.

Hotels are heavily booked throughout the period and sold out around the two big games, according to Fred Sawyers, president of the Greater New Orleans Hotel and Lodging Association.

New Orleans, which had 38,000 hotel rooms before Katrina, now has 31,000, including 23,000 downtown and in the French Quarter. Rates will probably average in the $200-$300 range, Sawyers said.

Extra flights are scheduled at the New Orleans airport, which is operating at abut 80 percent of its pre-Katrina capacity, said spokeswoman Michelle Duffourc.