The VooDoo on Monday night accomplished a feat that has proved elusive in recent seasons.
An ESPN2 audience watched the VooDoo beat the Jacksonville Sharks 36-35, thanks to a last-second field goal by newly signed kicker Josh Jasper, formerly of LSU.
The VooDoo later appeared on several ESPN daytime shows. Courtney Smith’s catch-and-bang-against-the-wall touchdown earned him kudos, while quarterback Adam Kennedy was playfully discussed as the filling in a sack sandwich.
If only winning and good publicity came this easy in the Arena Football League.
On most summer Saturday nights, the VooDoo failed to maintain the momentum that once made it a spectacle in the region, players, coaches and fans said.
Some circumstances are bad luck: Veteran quarterback Kurt Rocco (separated shoulder) and former LSU QB Ryan Perrilloux (torn thumb ligaments) were injured during the 2014 season opener on consecutive plays. Other times, it has been a lack of motivation and effort in an empty arena, like the defense’s ranking as one of the worst in the league.
L.J. Castile, the VooDoo’s best player on offense, was disliked by many of his teammates, he said — one of the reasons he was traded to the L.A. KISS before landing in the Canadian Football League.
“Team chemistry plays a major role,” said defensive lineman Marlon Favorite, now in his third season with the VooDoo. Favorite prepped at Shaw and West Jefferson before playing at LSU. “When you’re losing, it’s tough to search for motivation to play well and play good enough to win.”
The AFL is a feeder league for the CFL and NFL, and that cost the VooDoo other players this season, including offensive linemen Quentin Saulsberry and Jesse Peterson during the week leading up to a loss against the Iowa Barnstormers. Saulsberry has since returned.
Attendance at the Smoothie King Center suffered, with tallies a fraction of the franchise’s heyday of the mid-1990s when the same facility rocked on game day. Even during a slow sports stretch between Saints offseason activities and Pelicans summer practice, the VooDoo announced a crowd of 4,966 fans at their most recent home game, but actual attendance was less than half that. Dissatisfaction with promotional efforts have not helped maintain good will with fans.
Coach Pat O’Hara said winning solves many of these problems, but he admitted, “it’s been difficult to get that done.”
And the games continue. At 7 p.m. Saturday, the VooDoo (3-13) hosts the Orlando Predators (9-7).
“Once the players give up, well, that’s when fans get mad,” said fan Joshua Dean, known in costume as Pope Clown. “Because you just paid $500 for season tickets to watch my team give up.”
Assistant coach B.J. Cohen remembers the good days.
Cohen played for the VooDoo from 2004-05. Back then, Cohen said, he would look up at Section 320 and see fans. During that span, the VooDoo posted some of the AFL’s best attendance numbers.
He remembered billboards promoting the VooDoo. Radio spots. Somebody in a local television news studio every week, talking VooDoo. Jerseys on sale at Foot Locker and Champs.
“The fans, the city embraced us. Everywhere we went, they knew us, accepted us,” he said. “We got love everywhere we went. It was probably the best years of my career.”
During that span, the team was owned by Tom Benson, who used the Saints’ resources to promote arena football to the region. In 2009, the AFL shut down operations. The league re-emerged in 2010, and the VooDoo came back under new ownership.
Cohen returned to the VooDoo last offseason as a coach. Section 320 has been empty.
“Everywhere we go around the city, you can ask any player, they’re like, ‘The VooDoo’s back?’ They don’t even know we’re back playing,” Cohen said. “We’ve just got to do our due diligence and get back out there and get that buzz created, and I think the city will come out and support again.”
Ups and downs
Brittany “B-Dub” Warden is in her third season as a member of the VooDoo Dolls dance team. As part of her responsibilities, she makes year-round community appearances, from home games and Boo at the Zoo to events with special-needs children.
During this time, she has witnessed up-and-down results — not just on the scoreboard but in branding.
“It’s kind of hit-or-miss,” said Warden, a Kenner native. “This is (the franchise’s) fourth season back. We’ll be in full Dolls attire and people will ask if we play football. But I’ve been noticing that less and less lately. People are starting to remember: ‘Yeah, I heard about them on the radio.’ This season, I do feel like people knew we were back, but we’ve had a bad season.”
Team owner Dan Newman said the VooDoo is active with marketing, from social media (47,386 likes on Facebook and 3,809 followers on Twitter, as of Thursday) to in-game promotions, which he called the best in the AFL. Newman also cited the team’s four-year sponsorship of the VooDoo Athlete of the Week with WGNO-TV.
“In regards to straight-up advertising, you can’t buy New Orleans,” he said. “Unless you’re the Saints or the Pelicans. You can’t spend enough money to get enough reach and frequency through traditional advertising. The dollars don’t work.”
Tickets start at $13 — more affordable than the NFL product — but unlike the Saints, the VooDoo has yet to become interesting enough for local sports radio or message boards.
Finding a niche
Dean, a VooDoo fan and season-ticket holder since 2004, prefers the smaller, more intimate setup of AFL over traditional football.
“I can go to a Saints game and have a blast,” he said. “I can go to an arena football game and have 10 times more fun. It’s a lot (more) fan interactive.”
How dedicated a fan is he? Dean, a manager at Sweet Things & Grill, brings the team doughnuts at practice after wins. Last season, he participated in a VooDoo ticket referral contest, winning with 314 tickets sold. That earned him an all-expenses-paid trip to ArenaBowl XXVI in Orlando, Florida. During this summer’s French Quarter Festival, he gave away about 1,100 tickets, given to him by the team. His efforts led to one of the better home crowds of 2014.
“It sucked because, by halftime, we were getting destroyed,” Dean said. “But they still came and saw it’s very fan-friendly.”
Some of the fans have returned, he said. And, of course, they spot him, wearing an equally appealing and gruesome mask, and thank him again for the tickets.
“It wasn’t a huge success, but the way I look at it, if one person came back, that’s a success for me. I feel that worked out.”
Dean said fans have become frustrated by promotional promises the VooDoo never fulfilled.
“If you come up with a promo, hold your word to it,” Dean said. “If you’re going to offer something to the people, you have to deliver. That is their biggest problem.”
Newman admitted that not every promotion has worked.
“In that regard, I don’t think we’re a lot different from teams that do the same thing,” Newman said. “Sometimes a lot of stuff works, and other times it’s huge busts, and sometimes they’re not as good as others.”
Still, Dean said he won’t give up on the VooDoo. He’s got reason not to.
On his left thigh is a full-color image of Bones, the VooDoo icon who serves as both team logo and mascot. On his left arm is a detailed drawing of his gameday character, Pope Clown.
“I’m not going to turn my back on them because ... I tattooed it on me,” he said, smiling. “That’s my team.”