After days of sold-out hotel rooms and crowded bars and restaurants, tourism officials said the one-two punch this week that coupled New Year’s Eve festivities with a high-profile Sugar Bowl game was a boon for New Orleans’ hospitality industry, calming some jitters about how college football’s new playoff format will play out in coming years.
Under the new system, Thursday’s Allstate Sugar Bowl this year served as a national semifinal game, a feeder for the Jan. 12 title game in Arlington, Texas.
That will be the case once every three years under the new format. In other years, the Sugar Bowl will pit the best-available teams from the Southeastern Conference and the Big 12 against one another after the four national semifinalists are chosen.
And with New Orleans failing in bids to land the big three sporting events later this decade — the 2016 college football title game, the 2017 NCAA Men’s Final Four and the 2018 Super Bowl — the Sugar Bowl, the second-oldest college football bowl game, appears set to be the city’s marquee sporting event for at least the next few years.
Early returns suggest this year’s game paid off handsomely for hotels, bars and restaurants, with some estimates that more than 100,000 people converged on the city to watch the game, either in person or elsewhere.
That type of crowd typically brings an economic impact of $150 million to the region, officials say. That’s big money, though still far from the financial windfall of hosting a Super Bowl, where the extra spending on the lavish event can push the economic impact close to $500 million.
In fact, nearly all of the 21,000 hotel rooms within a few miles of the Mercedes-Benz Superdome were booked this week, some officials said, largely by guests who committed to staying at least three nights.
Brett Forshag, head of sales and marketing for HRI Lodging — which includes the Hyatt French Quarter, Hyatt Place New Orleans and Hilton Garden Inn hotels — said the city’s hospitality industry also caught a break by hosting a match-up between Alabama and Ohio State, two schools boasting loyal fan bases willing to travel to support their team.
The Sugar Bowl, Forshag said, is “New Orleans’ bread and butter when it comes to major sporting events,” noting that demand for hotel rooms was “really just off the charts.”
“Sometimes you kind of take it for granted because it’s always such a solid event, but you really realize how important it is to the local economy when you have a situation like this,” he said.
Forshag said HRI’s three hotels required a three-night stay for their 600 rooms because the game fell on New Year’s Day. If it had been held a few days later, as has sometimes been the case, the hotels might have been able to demand only a two-night minimum for the game and a single night for New Year’s Eve.
“Before the college football season started, I think a lot of us were kind of wondering how this playoff situation was going to affect the hotels,” he said. “If you’re a fan, can you afford to go to the first playoff game and follow it up with a trip to the championship? That’s quite a bit of spending early in the year for a lot of families right after Christmas.”
A lot of hoteliers, not just in New Orleans but throughout the U.S., were guarded about whether the extra semifinal games on the schedule would cause some fans to stay home, instead saving their money to potentially attend the final title game, he said. That wasn’t the case this year.
By hosting the Sugar Bowl under the new format, New Orleans no longer is guaranteed a national championship game, which it held four times in the 16-year BCS era — which was replaced by the new playoff format — and twice before that in the Bowl Alliance/Bowl Coalition period.
New Orleans lost out to Phoenix for the 2016 college championship game and will not compete for another one until at least 2019. Some local bowl organizers, including Allstate Sugar Bowl CEO Paul Hoolahan, warn that New Orleans will have to loosen its purse strings even more to compete with the rising cost of bidding on big games like the college football title match.
Next year’s title game will be held in Glendale, Arizona, home of the Fiesta Bowl; in 2017, it will go to Tampa, Florida. Those cities reportedly bid $13 million, more than twice what New Orleans ponied up for the 2016 game.
City officials had hoped to land the title game in 2016, followed by the Final Four in 2017 and the Super Bowl in 2018, but they ended up empty-handed in their pursuit of that trifecta.
Meanwhile, the success enjoyed by the hospitality industry from future Sugar Bowl games may depend to a large extent on which teams are playing, whereas many consider the championship game as a sure thing, financially.
“The first playoff game could sometimes be not as successful,” Forshag said. “You’re always guaranteed to have tremendous demand for (the title game). If you would’ve had two schools in this game that were maybe from much farther away, it could’ve negatively impacted the game, but I think you’re always guaranteed a solid sellout when you have the championship game itself.”
Dennis Waldron, who was president of this year’s Sugar Bowl Committee, said Friday that the process of bidding to host a title game is something that’s “still evolving, and we want to see how the first-ever championship game plays out.”
“We certainly will always be committed to doing all we can to bring sporting events to the city that are good for the economy of the city and the state, and we remain focused and try to do the best we can,” said Waldron, a recently retired Criminal District Court judge who has been on the committee for two decades. “These are challenging times, and we’re on uncharted waters, so to speak.”
Even though the city has hosted nearly two dozen national championships, Mark Romig, president of the New Orleans Tourism Marketing Corp., agreed that the bidding process has become a costly endeavor for a cash-strapped city like New Orleans to undertake “because more and more of the games are expecting more and more from the cities.”
“It gets competitive,” he said. “More and more cities have kind of read our playbook, and they’re doing the same thing to try to help build their location as a college football site, but New Orleans is what it is. It’s a walkable city, it treats its guests so well. We’re just been known to crown many champions here.”
From his perspective, the city gains more than just filling its rooms and restaurants by hosting a major sports event. It’s also about the national exposure it receives as viewers watch the game on television and as sportscasters and others set up shop in Jackson Square and elsewhere, offering the city plenty of camera-time as its iconic setting serves as a backdrop, “talking about New Orleans like a 24-7 love letter,” Romig said.
“Whether or not we’re going to participate in the college football championship again, I think that’s a decision that we have to make as a group with the city, because with that there comes some expenses,” he said. “It’s becoming much more expensive to compete, and that’s a decision that we all have to make together as community, and decide whether the good outweighs the expense.”
He said hosting a Super Bowl is far more lucrative for the local economy because “the parties are bigger, the exposure is greater.”
Follow Richard Thompson on Twitter, @rthompsonMSY.