New Orleans is ready for Super Bowl week

Stephen Perry has been juggling two weeks of Mardi Gras celebrations around a Super Bowl -- not to mention a new contract for LSU football coach Les Miles. Perry, who is president of the New Orleans Convention and Visitors Bureau and a member of the LSU Board of Supervisors, took some time to speak to Playbook about what this Super Bowl means to New Orleans, why the NBA’s “Pelicans” are a perfect fit for New Orleans, and the state of LSU football.

This week’s Super Bowl will be the tenth in New Orleans and the first since Hurricane Katrina in 2005. New Orleans has become a city of championships in recent years -- hosting the 2012 BCS title game in addition to this year’s Super Bowl. The city also will host the 2013 NCAA Women’s Final Four and the 2014 NBA All-Star Game.

The first round of Mardi Gras parades finished Sunday, with the rest of the pre-Lenten celebration taking place the week after the Super Bowl leading up to actual date of Mardi Gras on Feb. 12.

“We've got Mardi Gras, Super Bowl, big Mardi Gras,” Perry said. “It’s three weeks of total absolute fun. The electricity in the city is palpable already. It's pretty incredible around here.”

What is the impact all these major sporting events, in terms of both economics and the city's image?

“The sheer economic value is of immense importance in terms of dollars [but] with this slate of events over three years it will forever put in the rear-view mirror the issues related to Katrina and the hospitality industry and New Orleans’ capacity. [In terms of hotel occupancy and rate strength] we’ve been in the top two in the country for the past 28 months. The city's cultural economy has truly exploded and has it really helped carry the resurrection and rebirth of New Orleans.”

What improvements in the city and Superdome can visitors look for this week?

“We’ve put in $1.2 billion in investment in the past year in the Convention Center and Superdome. It's one of those rare stadiums that, 35 years later, looks better than the day it opened. It has more bells and whistles. New Orleans also has 54 percent more restaurants now than it did before Katrina.”

What makes New Orleans unique compared to other Super Bowl cities?

“You can scribe an eight-tenths-of-a-mile circle that includes the Superdome to the Convention Center, which is a 17-minute walk from the Superdome, where the NFL Experience is, to where the first-ever Super Bowl Boulevard will be along the riverfront. There’s not another Super Bowl city where you have the NFL Experience, the outdoor activities, the event venue, the majority of the hotel rooms, nearly all of the restaurants and nightlife, within a 20-minute walking radius. The proximity creates an electricity for fans and a special-events atmosphere. This year, we also have some wonderful opportunities for 'voluntourism.'”

As the governor’s chief of staff, you worked for the state to help negotiate the long-term Superdome lease with the Saints in 2001. The Saints are now committed to the city through 2025. In terms of the city's history and long-term growth, what did it mean for the Saints to stay in New Orleans after Katrina?

“It meant everything to the literal backbone and soul to the city. There had been some criticism that we offered them too much. But we didn’t. Getting the team the actual resources and cash to be competitive with other franchises in terms of luxury boxes gave the Saints the revenue and the incentives to stay in New Orleans and prosper. Because of that revenue in 2006, just a year after the storm, two most fateful decisions in the franchise's history were made: signing Drew Brees to a big contract and hiring Sean Payton. Ensuring the financial stability of a team in a city that was in financial crisis ended up being one of the most important decisions we made. The partnership of Paul Tagliabue and leadership of his successor, Roger Goodell, was the other piece of that puzzle. Without that deal, we don’t know what would have happened to the Saints."

This is the tenth Super Bowl in New Orleans and the first since Katrina. The last Super Bowl there was in 2002, five months after 9/11. What's changed in the past ten years in terms of preparation, and what were the biggest challenges in preparing for this year's game?

“Preparation has been easier for us, since we and Miami have done 20 of the 47 games. Because of all the special events, the blueprints for security are in place. Since 9/11, the NFL has become more sophisticated and has morphed the experience. In the old days you had the commissioner’s party Friday, the Experience on Saturday and the tailgate on the day of the game. Now, corporate groups flood into the city earlier than ever. You see an extremely large number of business gatherings. Physically, the security perimeter will be bigger than ever around the Superdome.”

How does the NBA team name "Pelicans" fit into the image of New Orleans, and did you have another personal choice?

“The pelican is the state bird. It's one of the most iconic symbols of Louisiana and was the name of the minor league baseball team here [from various years between 1877-1977.] For locals, sports in New Orleans was the Pelicans. When you think of those things most Louisianan, you think of water moccasins, alligators, crawfish and pelicans. Everybody would rather [the name] be the New Orleans Jazz, but they won’t sell it back. It’s very aggravating to everybody here. Why don’t we name our team the New Orleans Tabernacle Choir? That makes about as much sense as the Utah Jazz. If that’s not the [biggest] oxymoron I’ve ever heard, I don’t know what is. But there’s nothing that can be done. In the absence of that, I think the Pelicans is a great second choice.”

LSU is losing 10 underclassmen to the NFL draft. What are your thoughts on the Tigers in 2013?

“Our recruiting continues to be tremendous. We’ve just finalized Les Miles' new contract extension [which will pay him $4.3 million annually, up from $3.751 million through 2019]. One of the hardest things in sports is taking over for a legend -- and Nick [Saban] was a legend. Under Miles' period, LSU moved up to second in the SEC behind Vanderbilt in graduation rate of players. The players love the guy. Do we all have our moments when his quirks come out and leave us scratching our heads? Yes. But he has a kind of quirkiness people like in Louisiana. He's a character. He's very good with parents and players, and he’s very good with their academic requirements.”

You studied in the Soviet Union on two separate occasions. How does Saban compare to those tough dictators?

“Nick is probably the most focused, disciplined, intense person I've ever known. When you play golf with him and sit in the car, it’s hard for him to relax. Believe it or not, he’s shy. He’s very introverted. He’s a man of few words and supreme focus and discipline. A lot of that applies to Bill Belichick.”

Can you get us any Super Bowl tickets?

“We just have a bunch. We'll probably give them away on the street … Are you kidding me? It is so controlled with the NFL tickets it doesn't matter who you are: If you are president of the tourism or chairman of the host committee, everybody buys their ticket. That's why the NFL is the NFL. It's all business. My sister, my daughter, my mother, my son can't go. I can't get them tickets. I can get them LSU tickets. But this is a whole different world.”