Two cypress boxes sit on a small table inside the door of Jay Cicero’s office.
These aren’t any boxes. Adorned with paintings, brass plates and intricate engravings, they house the hopes and dreams of New Orleans’ past two Super Bowl bids. They were meticulously designed to boil down months of tireless work into digestible chunks and sell the NFL owners on the city’s vision for its premier event.
The box for the 2013 game has three books tucked in inside, breaking down different aspects of the bid. Just below, there is a drawer that houses an iPod Touch loaded with a presentation about the bid and city. The box for the ill-fated 2018 bid is bigger. When you open it, you find a book of fast facts just behind the lid. Lift up the book, and sitting eloquently inside three recesses are two smaller flip books — one that illustrates a Mardi Gras parade, the other showing the sun setting on the Mercedes-Benz Superdome — and an iPad loaded with information about the bid.
The bid process is different this year. There are no boxes or competition to outmaneuver. New Orleans was the only city invited to bid on the 2024 Super Bowl, has been working to meet the NFL’s criteria since November and is readying a presentation that will go before the league’s owners on Wednesday for approval, bringing the country's biggest game back to the city where it has been 10 times — but not since 2013, despite the location being a favorite of many people in the NFL.
“It’s subject to the vote and the whim of the owners,” Cicero said. “We feel good, but it’s not a done deal in any way, shape or form. We feel good because we’re not bidding against a new stadium where we lost the last two, and we know what we’re doing.”
Cicero, who was standing at his computer to keep an eye on a major-event bill coming up for a vote, walks across the room and sits at another table surrounded by four chairs from the Final Four, a reminder of all the work that he, Sam Joffray and the Greater New Orleans Sports Foundation do for the city. There’s a reason he was watching the vote so closely. New Orleans has hosted events like both the men’s and women’s Final Four, the College Football National Championship and Wrestlemania, but by 2024, it'll have been 11 long years since the NFL held its showcase event here.
There is reason to believe the drought will end. New Orleans has hosted the game 10 times and knows how to put together a bid. The odds of getting the necessary “yes” votes when Saints owner Gayle Benson and president Dennis Lauscha present the proposal are fairly high, even if it isn’t a given. On the other hand, being the only bid under consideration comes with a unique brand of stress. The Foundation knows that it would be black eye — or worse — if something unexpected happens and things go sideways when New Orleans is the only city bidding on the game.
“When you hear that the new process is in place where you think it’s a shoe-in because we’re the only one invited, it’s just not,” Cicero said. “It’s this huge question mark and different pressure, a different kind of anxiety associated with it. We’re not constantly thinking, ‘What do we have to do to beat Dallas?’ ”
Joffray interjected: “Now it’s what we have to do to not lose to ourselves, because if you come out of there with a no vote, then that’s worse than coming out and being beat by a new stadium.”
The NFL realized the benefit of working with a single site and working with groups to ready a bid after it was forced to move the 2021 Super Bowl from Los Angeles to Tampa Bay because of construction delays. This allows the league to work on some of the smaller details that might not be of as much importance to the owners when reviewing competing bids but have a substantial impact on the overall operation.
It also helps negate any bitter feelings when someone loses a bid. And it appears the league likes this approach, considering Arizona was the only city invited to bid on the 2023 game.
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“You have to remember the NFL is all about the owners,” Cicero said. “They’re upsetting owners that lose, and they’re upsetting elected officials of owners of cities that lose. It becomes a little bit of embarrassment. So they said, ‘Hey, let’s try this new way of doing it. We think we can, then we’re going to present it to you owners and y’all are going to vote.’ That’s where we are today.”
For the past six months the Sports Foundation, along with Lauscha, senior vice president and chief operating officer Ben Hales, and some other Saints officials, have worked through a binder about 200 pages thick with itemized sections laying out what the league expects of New Orleans. The topics range from vehicle inspection areas to cell phone coverage to credential pickup zones and everything else that goes into putting the Super Bowl on. No detail is too small.
The other challenge is figuring out how much things will cost in 2024, and whether the city will change. A building or parking lot that exists today might no longer be there in six years. Flexibility and contingency plans needs to be taken into account. Then, of course, there is the issue of securing funding, which will come from both public and private parties.
Each request is placed into a spreadsheet, line by line, with a plan of how to fulfill it and the associated cost. They then ask themselves a series of questions related to each item. Many of them result in lengthy back-and-forth conversations with the league, sometimes involving legal teams before a section is considered resolved. For instance: the NFL requested 25,000 parking spots for the game. That was something the bid committee found unreasonable because so many people walk to the game. So, the two sides worked to reach a compromise.
“How are we going to fund it? What are they asking for? If we can’t provide that, can we provide them with something else? Or can we risk it and say no?” Cicero said. “There are some things we’ve said no. Low-risk items. Some things we’ve said no, they’ve said, ‘No, you got to do that. If you don’t do that, you’re out.’ ”
The process is now in the hands of Benson and Lauscha, and it will be their job to bring it home. Joffray helped them prepare a script, which they have been working on for a couple of weeks. Once in Atlanta for the league meetings, the group will get together and continue to work and tweak the script after going through some dry runs.
In all, the presentation, which will also include a video element, will last about 10 minutes. The Saints will lean hard into the fact that this would be a New Orleans Super Bowl. It’s a popular destination, and most people have enjoyed having the game here.
Marcus Williams made it clear that he wasn’t interested in talking about the past.
“You ask anybody where should it be every year: (Their answer is) New Orleans,” Joffray said. “But the reasons the people say that is the walkability, the convenience. There isn’t a 20-minute commute from downtown to the stadium. It’s compact, culturally rich, we don’t have to go create entertainment zones. We have the French Quarter.”
Lauscha will present the business aspect of it. Benson will be the one selling the vision. That’s a process that will start long before the official presentation begins. It will happen when shaking hands and greeting people throughout the week. And unless something political blows up, this could an early opportunity to solidify her status as someone who can get things done among league owners.
“We look forward to the opportunity for Mrs. Benson to deliver that message to the full NFL ownership for consideration, and the vote which we expect to proceed immediately following," Lauscha said. "Any further comment would be premature at this time.”
Benson already has proven herself to be capable since taking over for her late husband, Tom Benson, who died in March. Since then, Gayle Benson has helped lead the Saints through free agency in the draft, saw the Pelicans win a playoff series and put a horse in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness. She’s also planning to launch a wine label in the fall and has continued to watch Dixie Beer grow. But landing the Super Bowl, which has evaded this city for quite a while, would be on a different level.
“This is the chance to say, ‘I did that,’ ” Joffray said.
There is confidence in the bid. The group feels they have put together a winning presentation. At times, Cicero and Joffray talk about how they’ll manage all the different events the Sports Foundation will be working to put on over the next few years. There’s the College Football Championship and Women’s Final Four in 2020, the New Orleans Bowl, the Men’s Final Four in 2022, the SEC gymnastics championship in 2019, as well as several other significant events, some of which have not yet been announced.
At one point, Joffray makes mention of hosting the Super Bowl 11 times. Cicero quickly stops him and says “10 times,” and knocks his knuckles on the table before him. A few minutes later, the two again begin discussing how much is at stake, and how this bid process is like finding out you’re the only candidate interview for a job. It’s unsettling when you know something should be yours but there is still a chance of missing out.
“There won’t be much sleeping much this week,” Cicero said.
There won’t be much sleeping in New Orleans for a week in 2024 if the bid comes home.