Mercedes-Benz Superdome (Baltimore Sun)

Last February, New Orleans played host to Super Bowl XLVII, the tenth Super Bowl in the city’s history. Fans and media members alike ranted and raved about the quality of the entire week’s events. Many even remarked that the NFL should make the city the permanent host city for the annual championship game.

Last Tuesday was the vote to decide which NFL city would host Super Bowl LII in 2018. The vast majority of onlookers believed that New Orleans was the heavy favorite to win due to their outstanding history of hosting the game along with the city’s tri-centennial falling in the same year.

A mere twenty-four hours later many were asking if it was time for New Orleans to build a new venue for the Saints in order to land another Super Bowl.

The question began following the city’s shocking loss to Minneapolis for the right the host the big game four years from now. It was the eighth time out of eight that a newly constructed stadium has won the right to host in recent years. It’s a trend that is likely to continue with a brand new venue under construction in Atlanta where Falcons owner Arthur Blank has announced that they very much want to host in 2019.

Building a new stadium though to replace the Superdome may be a bit of a knee-jerk reaction to what just happened at the spring ownership meeting. While it’s true that new stadiums have a perfect record in recent years when bidding for the Super Bowl, to think that the stadium itself is the reason these cities have all been victorious is to look at the issue with a bit of tunnel vision. While the new venues definitely make for a nice shiny new toy for Commissioner Roger Goodell to show off to the world, what the league is truly rewarding is the public funding that goes into each.

Following this coming season, the league will head back out to the Arizona desert for Super Bowl XLIX. While University of Phoenix Stadium has only been up and running for about eight years now, it is already undergoing its first significant upgrades in preparation for the big game. Before the season begins there will be two brand new video screens installed, one at each end of the field, that are triple the size of the original ones. The new screens come with a $10.8M price tag, $8.1M of which will be covered by taxpayer funds through the Arizona Sports and Tourism Authority (AZSTA). The Cardinals organization however will foot the entire bill for an $8M upgrade to the stadium’s Wi-Fi system.

Two years later, the championship game returns to NRG Stadium (formerly Reliant Stadium) in Houston. By the time Super Bowl LI rolls around though the stadium will be 15 years old, which moved Goodell to hint that there would need to be upgrades prior to the game. The most significant by far would be the two new HD video screens that were installed prior to the beginning of the 2013 season. They are currently only second in size to the new screen being installed at EverBank Field in Jacksonville. The cost of the pair of new screens is $16M, all of which will end up coming out of the taxpayers’ pocket.

The lesson that can be learned from Houston and Glendale is that a brand new $1B stadium is not necessary to win a Super Bowl bid. Both stadiums will be hosting their second Super Bowl in the next few years and all it took was an investment of less than $20M in the right area. Larger, higher quality video screens and top-end Wi-Fi service are improvements that can significantly improve the overall game day experience for the fans and they don’t cost $1B to get done.

When you get down to it, the Superdome is actually in the same situation as these two stadiums. While the basic structure of the building is the same one that has been there for the past 39 years, nearly everything else in the building is no more than 8 years old. From the aluminum siding that covers the outside of the structure to the very wiring that runs everything inside and out to the finishing touches in each of the 152 suites in the building, New Orleans basically has a nearly brand new stadium with the exception of the bones of the building. Think of it as the NFL equivalent of any of the countless home remodeling shows that can be found on television these days. And just like each city that has built or is building a new stadium and has been awarded a Super Bowl, the Saints were awarded Super Bowl XLVII as a result of the “new” Superdome.

Now is the time that New Orleans should continue to follow the examples of Houston and Glendale by making noticeable investments to the quality of the game day experience for fans rather than starting over from the ground up.

There are a number of simple investments that can be made that would help push the city back into contention to host a Super Bowl. At the top of that list should be the video screens. With San Francisco and Minneapolis making significant upgrades in their new stadiums, New Orleans now has the third smallest video screens of any NFL stadium behind only Oakland and San Diego. One option would be large, curved video boards on the walls above each end zone where the current screens are located. Several years ago, Daktronics Inc. produced four such HD video boards that are currently in use at Metlife Stadium. While the boards in the Meadowlands come in at 30’ x 118’, the Superdome should be able to comfortably fit boards of roughly 40’ x 200’. That would be an increase of more than six times the square footage of each of the current screens.

Fortunately for New Orleans they don’t need to lay out $8M to upgrade their Wi-Fi service. Two years ago just before Super Bowl XLVII, AT&T was brought in to upgrade their network to be able to support all mobile service providers as well as make sure it was strong enough to account for the Superdome, the Smoothie King Center, Champions Square and every tailgater in the surrounding garages. In short, a system capable of handling an event on the scale of the Super Bowl is already in place. However, technology often can become obsolete in a matter of months. It would be wise for the Louisiana Stadium & Exposition District to ensure that funds are available each off-season for any maintenance or hardware upgrades needed to keep the system as advanced as possible. Not only will it decrease the likelihood of having to make multi-million dollar upgrades the way Glendale did, but close attention to the technical details may help dispel any lingering questions or doubts stemming from the Dome’s partial blackout the last time the game was here.

While there are obvious benefits to building a new billion-dollar stadium rather than investing in the Superdome, it can also cause a number of problems that can not be fixed. Much of the discussion about replacing the Superdome has centered on building a brand new venue along the river in the Warehouse/Southern Garden District near the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center. While the view of the river from the stadium would be lovely, relocating there would do away with one of the biggest draws the city currently has going for it in competing for Super Bowl hosting rights.

When both fans and the media alike are asked why they enjoy attending the Super Bowl in the Crescent City, one of the answers that always come up is how close and convenient everything is. With a high concentration of quality, high-occupancy lodging in the CBD north of Poydras Street up into and throughout the French Quarter, a large percentage of visiting fans are able to find accommodations surrounded by the amazing food and entertainment the city has to offer while being only a short walk, bus ride or street car ride away from the game.

Putting a new stadium on the open land south of the convention center would do away with nearly every convenience visitors have previously enjoyed during their visits for the big game. Unlike the Superdome, the potential riverfront site is more than a mile from most of the lodging, dining and entertainment options that could handle a Super Bowl sized crowd. Currently there is only one bus route running in the area and the nearest streetcar stop is a 1/3 mile walk through the Port of New Orleans. As a result, visiting fans would either have to pay a great deal of bus fare, cab fare or rental car fees rather than being able to walk in the past. In the end, the convenience factor that has made New Orleans so popular in the past would be gone, potentially costing the city future bids.

The only way to have a new stadium and truly keep the convenience for fans would be to demolish the Superdome and rebuild on the same site. While such a move would allow the city to keep all of the convenience fans and the league love so much about hosting Super Bowls in the Big Easy, the Saints would have to find a venue to play at for two or three seasons. With Tiger Stadium in Baton Rouge being the nearest suitable venue, it would mean the Saints would not have a single game in their home town for two to three years. For a team built to win now with a quarterback in his late 30s, that much time trying to operate under such circumstances could be a sizable stumbling block to all of their recent success as well as continuing to develop toward the future.

While the temptation of a new stadium is certainly understandable, it may not be the best way to go about bringing the Super Bowl back to town. With a few noticeable investments in the Superdome, the city should be able to catch the attention of the league without sacrificing the convenience that is so popular with visiting fans. By simply following the successful example of Houston and Glendale, New Orleans should be playing host to the Super Bowl again sooner rather than later and for far less than a billion dollars.