For the Superdome, 40 is the new 30. And that promises to extend the stadium’s viability for at least another two decades.
An ongoing post-Katrina interior remodeling combined with an exterior makeover, plus a level of cooperation with the principal tenant that was as unexpected as the damage the storm wrought in 2005, has the facility, which marks the 40th anniversary of its opening Monday and is the sixth-oldest in the NFL, arguably as cutting-edge as it was in 1975.
“In the 1970s, the Superdome was considered the future of stadiums everywhere,” said Doug Thornton, vice president of SMG, which manages the Superdome and the adjacent Smoothie King Center. “And the building has certainly served the community in being that. Right now, the Superdome is still a very suitable facility — not just for the Saints, but for the special events we want to host for the foreseeable future.”
Don Muret, senior writer for SportsBusiness Journal who specializes in covering stadium and arena issues, agreed with that sentiment.
“Because technology is changing so quickly, 40 years is past the normal shelf life of a major league facility these days,” he said. “But what they’ve done in New Orleans has certainly extended the life of the building far beyond that. New Orleans has always been a destination city and big-event city. And they continue headed in the right direction.”
That certainly didn’t seem to be the case in the pre-Katrina days, when the Saints and the state were at odds over a lease extension that included Superdome improvements designed to eliminate the $15 million the state was paying the team annually.
Not only were bids on future events such as the Super Bowl thrown into doubt, but the Saints’ continued presence in New Orleans appeared to be in jeopardy.
“A deal has to be struck and struck soon,” Jay Cicero, then and now president of the Greater New Orleans Sports Foundation, said in 2004.
But once owner Tom Benson’s saber-rattling in the aftermath of the storm dissipated, a deal was struck between the Saints and the state — with a nudge from the NFL and the aid of FEMA money — leading to the rebuilding of the Dome in time for the 2006 season.
Including that activity, more than $300 million in improvements have been made since — the reconfigured lower bowl with its bunker suites, widened concourses and other amenities, adding Champions Square, turning the Superdome walls from weather-beaten gray to their original “champagne” — along with upgrades inside the arena, too.
Earlier this year, larger video boards for both the Superdome and arena were announced, with the Saints contributing $25 million of the $39.5 million cost.
Along the way, Benson purchased the Hornets (since renamed the Pelicans), making him the only owner of an NFL and NBA team in the same city; the Dome’s naming rights were sold to Mercedes-Benz in a 10-year, $60 million deal; the New Orleans Arena became the Smoothie King Center for a lesser sum; and Benson acquired the adjacent office building now known as Benson Towers with $112 million in guaranteed leases from the state.
“There were some issues with the facility when it was 30 years old,” said Mickey Loomis, the Saints/Pelicans executive vice president and general manager of the Saints. “But we have withstood the test of time, and our ties are stronger now than they have ever been.”
The key has been maximizing the revenue opportunities for the Saints and Pelicans by offering better — and more expensive — fan amenities.
Pro stadiums and arenas are no longer about capacity. It’s about the fan experience, ranging from club seating to high-speed Wi-Fi to high-definition video boards.
“Even before Katrina, everybody knew it couldn’t be the same old Saints in the same old Superdome anymore,” Thornton said. “And we had plans on the shelf to take care of that.”
And unlike a lot of cookie-cutter stadiums built in the 1970s, the Dome had the built-in flexibility to adapt to changes in technology and amenities.
“It’s like the Superdome was designed future-proof,” said Thornton, who oversaw the post-Katrina rebuilding. “A building is only steel and concrete and, from a physical standpoint, the building is as solid as a rock. It’s a great credit to everyone who has been associated with the Superdome over the years that we have been able to adopt and adapt to whatever changes came along.”
Indeed, while the Superdome has survived, even newer stadiums have gone by the wayside.
The Georgia Dome, built for the 1996 Olympics, is being replaced by a newer version next door. And in other cities with stadium issues — most prominently Oakland, San Diego and St. Louis — there is little public or private will or means to make it happen.
The Kingdome in Seattle, Indianapolis’ Hoosier Dome and the Metrodome in Minneapolis are history, and Houston’s Astrodome and the Silverdome in suburban Detroit have been abandoned.
“Having the room for those bunker lounges was maybe dumb luck,” Muret said. “But why ever it happened, the Superdome people have been able to go a long ways in meeting the hospitality needs for the high-end customers you need in the NFL and NBA today. It’s just like selling the naming rights to Mercedes. After 30 years, it wouldn’t seem to figure, but Tom Benson had a relationship with them, and it’s turned out great for everybody.”
Another fortuitous event: Benson owning both teams.
“That’s a blessing for us,” Thornton said. “When George Shinn owned the Hornets, he and Mr. Benson were competitors, and we couldn’t satisfy one without having to try to satisfy the other.”
The result is that the Saints and Pelicans are able to stay competitive, financially at least, with other teams in their leagues despite being in one of the smallest markets.
“In Tom Benson, we have a strong owner who has shown tremendous support for the city by investing both in his teams and his facilities,” said Ron Forman, chairman of the Louisiana Stadium and Exposition District, the state agency that oversees the Superdome and SKC. “And with that going for us, New Orleans will continue to be a leader in hosting major events.”
Of course, eventually there will be a day of reckoning for the Superdome. It could be an issue, Thornton suggested, in how fans arrive at the stadium, although he jokingly added that “The Jetsons”-like flying cars are a good ways down the road.
“There will come a point in time, maybe 15 or 20 years from now, when we have to evaluate whether we should build a new stadium,” Thornton said. “It probably will involve revenue, but you’re also getting into public policy.
“But fortunately, we’re not ready to have that conversion yet. The Superdome is not going to become obsolete any time soon.”