It’s not a title game. Unlike last year, it’s not even a national playoff game. But along with Thursday’s New Year’s Eve festivities, Friday’s Allstate Sugar Bowl has filled the nearly 21,000 hotel rooms in downtown New Orleans and is sure to keep bars and restaurants busy through the weekend, local tourism officials say.
That’s not to say everyone likes the new format for college football playoffs, which requires cities to bid to host the title game and rotates the semifinal games among several cities, with New Orleans in line for one of those high-profile contests only one year out of three.
On Friday, the No. 13 Oklahoma State Cowboys will face off against the No. 16 Ole Miss Rebels at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
Despite their relatively low rankings, the teams’ matchup works for New Orleans, according to some tourism leaders, because it falls close to the weekend and because fans don’t have to travel too far from either school.
“This year, with a good matchup, two good teams that have not traveled here in a long time, there’s a lot of pent-up excitement,” said Mark Romig, president of the New Orleans Tourism Marketing Corp. “I think we’re feeling really good about it.”
With the Carnival season set to begin in a few weeks, Sugar Bowl organizers are getting an early start by adding a new parade this year. It is slated to begin at 3:30 p.m. Thursday at Elysian Fields Avenue and Decatur Street, head down Decatur past Jackson Square and disband at Canal Street.
More than 100,000 people were estimated to have traveled to the city for last year’s Ohio State-Alabama semifinal game, either to watch it in person or just to share in the festivities, which officials said created an economic impact for the region of between $130 million and $150 million.
That’s a lot, though still far short of the financial windfall that comes with hosting a Super Bowl, which it is estimated can generate an impact of close to $500 million.
Besides drawing business for local hotels and restaurants, major sporting events such as the Sugar Bowl give the city valuable national exposure, as images of Jackson Square and other iconic local sights are periodically flashed to viewers watching the game on TV.
Last month, New Orleans was awarded the 2020 college football title game, besting five other cities and bringing the national championship back to the city for the first time since 2012. It will mark the 24th time the national champion has been involved in a game in New Orleans.
Though it’s not as high-profile a matchup as last year’s national semifinal, hotel managers and tourism leaders say the city’s hotels are booked nearly solid, with most travelers arriving Wednesday or Thursday and staying until Saturday or Sunday.
“I was kind of leery about how we were going to perform this year initially, prior to the teams being announced, because it was not a playoff game,” said Jonathan Beardsley, regional director of revenue management for HRI Lodging, which has about 800 rooms at hotels such as the Aloft New Orleans Downtown and Hyatt French Quarter. “But I think the teams that were chosen are in good positions relative to New Orleans, and their fans are able to travel to New Orleans, and thankfully, that has provided us with a good demand for the weekend.”
Oklahoma State fans who live near the Stillwater school face an 11-hour drive to or from New Orleans and may be more likely to stretch their stay through the weekend, local hotel officials say. With the Rebels’ base in northern Mississippi only about five hours away, on the other hand, their fans may opt to head back home Saturday.
“A lot of times, when you have a short distance, people don’t spend as much time in town,” said Marc Becker, area director of marketing for the New Orleans Hotel Collection, which includes the Bourbon Orleans and the Dauphine Orleans hotels in the French Quarter. “They literally come in for the game, turn around and drive back.”
Nearly all of the Hyatt Regency New Orleans’ 1,400 rooms are booked, according to the hotel’s general manager, Michael Smith. This year, reservations came with a two-night minimum stay. That’s less stringent than last year, when demand for the playoff game allowed the hotel to require a three-night stay.
Overall, thousands of revelers are expected to descend upon the hotel this week to stay in its rooms, dine in its restaurants or ring in the new year at its annual bash that boasts an open bar and nearly a dozen musical acts and performers — with tickets starting at close to $135 per person.
“That’s a small village,” Smith said of the number of people passing through the Hyatt. “It’s one of the biggest nights of the year as far as business is concerned.”
Still, Smith would rather put some distance between New Year’s Eve and the Sugar Bowl. Pushing the bowl game back a few days, he said, would allow for two separate waves of travelers.
“New Orleans could stand on its own for New Year’s Eve as it is and wouldn’t have to share it with the Sugar Bowl,” he said.
Under college football’s 2-year-old playoff format, New Orleans no longer is guaranteed one of the big-ticket post-season games each year. Amid rising costs of trying to compete with perhaps better-heeled areas across the country, the city lost out to Glendale, Arizona, in the bidding for this season’s championship game and to Tampa, Florida, for the 2017 title match. Both cities reportedly bid more than twice what New Orleans offered for the 2016 game.
Some hospitality leaders scoff at the outsized role they say money now plays in the selection process, rather than relying on a city’s proven ability to host such big events.
“Nobody does these events better than New Orleans. That’s a fact,” Smith said. “So for us not to be on that championship rotation until 2020, I think it says something about the new business model.”
Follow Richard Thompson on Twitter, @rthompsonMSY.