How the Super Bowl Screws New Orleans
Sam Scandaliato, the captain of the Krewe of Pontchartrain (pictured here in a Saints jacket), estimates his group has lost $14,000 because the Super Bowl forced the city to reschedule planned Carnival parades. Photo by Alden Ward.
Contrary to its lamest nickname, New Orleans isn’t “big." Nor is it “easy”—especially when the Super Bowl comes to town. Having planned and executed Mardi Gras celebrations since the turn of the 17th century, our town is used to handling big, rowdy parties. But the Super Bowl is a whole different obnoxious, corporate ball game.
The Super Bowl and the accompanying insanity cause many inconveniences here, mostly related to the traditional Carnival festivities. After the Krewe Du Vieux kicks off parade season on January 19, Super Bowl XLVII kills Carnival’s momentum. This year, the city has banned parades of any sort for days before and after the game, saying it doesn’t have enough security to handle both crowds simultaneously.
And they are remarkably different crowds.
Unlike Carnival, which brings in many working-class Gulf Coast families, the Super Bowl attracts mostly out-of-town high-rollers. I worked at the only fine-dining restaurant on Canal Street’s main parade route back when Super Bowl XXXVI interrupted Mardi Gras in 2002, and the scene outside the window looked like a rap video starring white men dangling from limos. I recall an Escalade with a hot tub in its bed.
For the pleasure of these same assholes, the city’s working overtime and even dissing Mardi Gras, its oldest tradition and most reliable financial benefactor. Per usual, what the New Orleans government won’t do for its citizenry it gladly does for out-of-towners and the NFL, the Walmart of sports.
If you detect some bitterness here, it’s not because NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell suspended Saints coach Sean Payton and several key players from his team and, in one fell swoop, turned our champion Saints back into their historical losing-ass selves. OK, maybe it is. But it’s equally easy to feel bitter about the city’s many sudden “improvements.”
Many of New Orleans’s streets and sidewalks are so broken that we must resort to accepting our crumbling infrastructure as “charming.” Yeah, it’s très cute how since Katrina, my Ninth Ward street fills up with ankle-deep water during even small storms. It’s adorably quaint the way money from the federal Road Home program meant for public renovations obviously hasn’t made it to many African-American neighborhoods seven years after the flood.
Mayor Mitch Landrieu has made sure, however, that the airport got a $300 million renovation in time for Super Bowl. He's loudly proud of the potholes his administration has only recently filled, the tens of thousands of streetlights suddenly replaced, and all the new palm trees planted—improvements that are limited to areas where Super Bowl tourists will visit, areas that, compared to many New Orleans neighborhoods, looked fine to begin with.
Loyola Avenue in the Central Business District is the heart of comically disorganized construction that began 18 months ago. The inconvenience has only worsened as the city struggles to meet its Super Bowl deadline.
The construction revolves around the addition of less than two miles of new streetcar track, which will lead from Canal Street to the bus station near the Superdome. Though Patrice Bell Mercadel, Director of Marketing and Communications for New Orleans’s Regional Transit Authority, claims the $52 million project ($7 million over budget) is not Super Bowl-related, the new line seems clearly designed for tourists hoping to avoid the short walk from their hotels to the Dome when their limos aren’t available. In the end, CBS will likely get the most use out of the new streetcar as a prop in interstitial shots in between the game and the commercials. Residents have dubbed the project “the streetcar to nowhere.”
While the RTA claims the new line will somehow bring in billions, so far the project has been a net loss for businesses. China Wall, an Asian restaurant on Canal Street, has for ten months sat stuck between two closed, muddy streets. Its owner, Bao Li, bemoans a total lack of parking that has killed pick-up orders—she estimates a loss of around $20,000 for the year as a result of the construction. When Li called the RTA to inquire about possible reimbursement, she was told to call the city, who in turn suggested she call the RTA.
Once the streetcar gets going and the party begins, Li doesn’t expect to make back the lost income. “Business will be a little better soon,” she said. “But the only ones who really make money during Super Bowl are bars with televisions.”
When asked how Li might go about recovering her losses, the RTA’s Bell Mercadel refused to comment, instead repeating several times, “Progress is never easy.”
But the shittiest end of the stick has been handed directly to some of Carnival’s biggest spenders: the Mardi Gras krewes. Each year, krewe members—both locals and people from around the country—spend thousands of dollars on membership dues, parties, and balls, plus beads and toys to throw to the crowds. Like the tourists, krewes spend and spend, and never see a profit. Theirs is a free show.
This year Carnival—not an event but a holiday season that’s celebrated according to a lunar calendar—begins early anyway, which always puts a damper on the first couple weeks’ attendance. This year, Mayor Landrieu has also “asked” 11 krewes to go on parade a week early so that “the focus stays on football.” Krewes are even more-or-less disallowed from parading in the Orleans Parish section of the West Bank, across the Mississippi river. As a result, most West Bank parades will move to the East for the first time ever—at their own expense, of course.
The shift puts the 11 krewes’ parades closer to America’s favorite wallet-draining corporate holiday, Christmas. As a result, said Phil Fricano, the captain of the West Bank’s 36-year-old Krewe of King Arthur, “Our membership is down from 500 in 2011 to 310 this year.” Because many people are tapped out after Christmas and don't want to spend money to parade for sparse crowds, King Arthur claims a loss of $350 per person in dues this year, and will roll with six fewer floats.
Fricano also owns the PFJ float company, which provides floats and tow tractors to krewes all around the Gulf Coast. Because of Super Bowl XLVII, he said, “I couldn’t provide tractors to the New Orleans krewes that are rolling early, because those are being used by the Krewe of Jupiter in Baton Rouge, where parades are rolling on schedule that same weekend.” Jupiter also normally shares floats with the West Bank’s Krewe of Choctaw, which traditionally rolls on the weekend now consumed by the Super Bowl.
After 78 years of parading, 2013 will be Choctaw’s first year rolling anywhere but the West Bank. Choctaw’s captain, Chuck Favrot, expected his krewe’s move to the East to create an influx of new members. This was not the case. “Members backed out,” he lamented. “Last year we rolled with three or four floats. This year I have just two. And Fricano didn’t know until a couple weeks ago whether he could give me any floats.” Favrot eventually borrowed the floats cut from King Arthur’s parade.
When I asked him to quantify Choctaw’s total loss, Favrot replied, “Oh man… Between lost membership, plus ticket sales for events, loss of revenue from throws [the toys and beads tossed into the crowd]… And the Super Bowl is also occupying the warehouse that would normally hold our floats the night before the parade, so we’ve had to lease a new spot for $500 a day. We have to provide our own trucks to transport all the floats from the end of the parade back across the river to the West Bank, which is $100 a truck, so that’s $1,600. In the end I’d say we have $15,000 less than we would have.”
“This is the second time this has happened to us,” said Sam Scandaliato, a captain who also led his Krewe of Pontchartrain during 2002’s Super Bowl. “This year, the out-of-town package we offer, which includes the ride and all your throws, that’s $685. But when our out-of-towners called to make hotel reservations they found out the hotels had all raised their rates $50 to $100 a night… The NFL has locked up everything we would normally use.”
Though still considered small, Pontchartrain’s parade will roll this year with 14 floats. “Most of those floats will have 12 to 14 people, which is about four less members per float,” Scandaliato said. “We lost at least 25 to 30 people, and that’s at least $14,000.”
When the Super Bowl put Mardi Gras on pause in 2002, the city compensated the krewes. “I was part of that settlement, and it covered our krewe’s losses,” Scandaliato said. “But this year the city didn’t want to share the $50 million they got up front from the NFL.” The city’s Economic Development department, who were at first friendly and helpful, ceased communication once I broached this topic via email.
Nor did the city respond to a letter of complaint signed by Scandaliato and the captains of ten other displaced krewes. “We wrote to our public officials, City Council people, and the Mayor’s office and told them about the hardships,” Scandaliato said. “And you know what? Not one response. All we do is inject money into the city, year after year after year after year. Then Super Bowl appears, with even deeper pockets, and it’s, ‘To hell with you all.’”
Michael Patrick Welch is a New Orleans musician, journalist, and author of books including The Donkey Show and New Orleans: the Underground Guide. His work has appeared at McSweeney's, Oxford American, Newsweek, and many other publications. Follow him on Twitter here.