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College football kickoff game a gift New Orleans should continue

It’s not the way I wanted it to happen; nevertheless, New Orleans will host a college football kickoff game tomorrow night in front of a nationally televised audience when LSU and BYU begin their seasons in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome at 8:30 p.m.

The AdvoCare Texas Kickoff was supposed to be played at NRG Stadium in Houston, but Hurricane Harvey’s havoc forced its relocation. Dallas, Jacksonville, Nashville, and Orlando were considered, until New Orleans’ sporting event all-star team went to work. Doug Thornton, vice president of stadiums for SMG – who runs the Superdome, called his SMG cohort, Jamey Rootes, who runs NRG Stadium and is one of the game’s main producers, to discuss the possibility of the game coming to the Crescent City. In a city with 80 percent occupancy ahead of Labor Day weekend, Stephen Perry, the president and CEO of the New Orleans Convention and Visitors Bureau (NOCVB), led a successful effort to secure enough hotel rooms for both schools football programs plus ESPN’s staff. Saints president Dennis Lauscha made more than 30 suites available. And Thornton was able to roundup the 3,000 workers needed for game day at the Dome. Just like that, Rootes told The Times-Picayune/nola.com, an event that normally takes 18 months to organize was put together in about four days, and is expected to have a $50 million dollar economic impact on the city.

Since the introduction of the four-team college football playoff format replaced the traditional bowl format in 2014, college football’s post-season has changed as rapidly as it has dramatically. Bowls not included in the tournament have diminished prestige, some, including the Sugar Bowl, have seen attendance swings of nearly 20,000 fans year-to-year, depending on the matchup. Additionally, many of the stars who have professional football aspirations are choosing not to play in their school’s non-playoff bowl game for fear of injury (the glory of a national championship diminishes the risk, you see). This winter, running backs Leonard Fournette of LSU and Christian McCaffrey of Stanford both skipped their schools’ bowl games. They went on to be selected with the fourth and eighth overall picks, respectively.

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Insignificant is not where the Sugar Bowl, or any other traditional bowl wants to be. They can’t compete with the interest in a championship tournament. To remain relevant in the future of college football, New Orleans needs to host a high-profile season opening game as a bookend to the Sugar and New Orleans bowls.

Marquee matchups featuring top-ranked schools at the beginning of the season – essentially opening day bowl games with the sports biggest stars – are growing in popularity because they provide a big, national stage for teams to show off their talent and skill, reach recruits, and get a jump in the national polls. Many of these games feature teams who aren’t necessarily traditional rivals, like when LSU and Wisconsin played last year. But they’re even better when traditional rivals who have changed conferences and don’t square off regularly get the opportunity to face an old foe. An LSU/Texas border war would be a draw, as would reuniting the Longhorns with Old Southwest Conference competitors Arkansas or in-state rivals Texas A&M, both now in the Southeastern Conference.

Labor Day has traditionally marked the end of the city’s summer tourism drought. Mark Romig, president and CEO of The New Orleans Tourism Marketing Corporation, said, “The hotels are running north of 90 percent for Saturday night, and the weekend was looking strong already even before the game was announced.”

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New Orleans has long outshined regional rivals as a college football destination, but Atlanta, Dallas, and Houston have all made strides to get a piece of the action. The Sugar Bowl is, traditionally, a more prominent bowl than any in those cities, however each of them has established big games at the beginning of the season.

It’s time for New Orleans to add a college football kickoff game. Undefeated teams with a national draw (Alabama, Notre Dame, Michigan, Ohio State, USC, Texas), at 0-0, will have more enticement than many of the same nationally relevant teams out of championship contention at the end of the season.

No one wants to see New Orleans lose prominence as a college football destination, This is our chance to add another big game, keep the city in the media forefront, and bring much needed dollars into the city at the end of the slow summer season.

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