University of New Orleans
The National Football League came to New Orleans a few weeks ago and while everyone else has probably moved on, I am still thinking about it. Part of this is because the big game was here in the middle of Carnival season. In fact, the parade schedule in New Orleans was re-arranged to accommodate the Super Bowl. New Orleans is a party town, but this was a long stretch of festivities, even for us. New Orleans is also a town that has long engaged in very self-conscious self-promotion. The NFL provided a key opportunity for that, allowing the city to put on a show for the entire world to see. I have been interested in the ways in which cities (especially New Orleans) work to create a sense of distinctiveness—for tourism, business, etc.—and this was clearly a great moment to see that happen. The NFL brought us a standardized segment of Americana and New Orleans responded with a cleaned up version of itself.
Perhaps a bigger city can absorb the NFL presence in a way that allows locals to get on with life as if nothing was going on. That would have been difficult here. In fact, city leaders worked hard to raise awareness of the arrival of NFL visitors. Locals were warned about the crowds and traffic to expect in the city center. New Orleans has a relatively concentrated core, with the Superdome very close to the neighborhoods where visitors like to gather. Those neighborhoods are easy to move around in, on foot, via bicycle (a temporary version of the bicycle share programs common in other cities was set up for the Super Bowl) or mass transit (an entirely new streetcar line serving the area near the Superdome was completed in time for the event). The NFL constructed a sort of independent town, with actual buildings and tents near the convention center and took over the vast convention center itself for a variety of events. The French Quarter was occupied by CBS, with banners and temporary structures creating backdrops for broadcasts. At one point people at CBS sparked indignant protests from locals when they decorated the iconic Andrew Jackson statue in the city’s central square with a sign from one of their shows. The sign came down, but the stage was still set. New Orleans was occupied by the NFL and the media. And, with a few exceptions, people were mostly pleased.
The Super Bowl seems to have become a secular holiday nearly on a par with Thanksgiving in the United States. Attending Super Bowl parties and preparing elaborate (if informal) feasts is now part of the regular ritual calendar for many Americans. Some claim that the Super Bowl provides the occasion for the second largest annual food consumption day in the U.S., surpassed only by Thanksgiving. It is clearly more than just a special football game. Spectacular sports events have been used in many countries as part of national holidays and sporting events can take on national significance that transcend the specific sport or game. This is certainly the case with the FIFA World Cup, the Olympics, the Tour de France, and other events. Each of these provides an opportunity to showcase sports and promote the event’s sponsors, while at the same time providing a stage on which the event’s location also receives public attention.
The Super Bowl is a huge commercial and cultural juggernaut. Although I had an abstract sense of the event that had occupied New Orleans, the real size and flavor became much clearer when Rebecca Turner, of the Southeast United Dairy Industry Association, invited me to visit the “NFL Experience” in the Morial Convention Center. This turned out to be something like 800,000 square feet of football mania, with displays of everything the NFL and NFL-affiliated sponsors thinks you should think about when you think about football. There were dozens of games, ranging from tests of physical strength and coordination, to football trivia. There were displays of football memorabilia, including Super Bowl rings, helmets and uniforms. Performers sang and danced and football players stopped by to sign autographs. The Southeast Dairy Association was there to promote a diet and exercise program it has developed with the NFL. Food offerings were mostly generic American industrial products–there were concession stands selling national beer brands and the usual fast food, while sponsors like Pepsi handed out samples of soft drinks (the dairy folks were distributing cheese sticks and chocolate milk). I suspect that NFL experience, or something like it, appears in every city that hosts the Super Bowl.
Fascinating as this was, entering the NFL experience felt like leaving New Orleans. Of course, the city also put on a huge show of its own culture for the Super Bowl. This included endless interviews with local officials, activists, artists, musicians and, of course, restaurateurs. Trumpeter Wynton Marsalis and local chef Poppy Tooker used gumbo to help people think about the nature of New Orleans on one CBS show. The city and the NFL also organized a music and food festival in Woldenberg Park, next to the Mississippi River. I rode my bike over to that festival the day after I visited the NFL experience. Enthusiastic crowds surrounded several stages where local bands played everything from funk to brass band music. Rows of stands sold the kind of food that has made New Orleans famous. The French Quarter was just a few steps away, providing access to even more of the things that attract people to New Orleans (and the Times-Picayune provided an interesting analysis and guide to one of those things).
The distinctive version of New Orleans presented for the Super Bowl was just distinct enough to add some flavor to the dominant American football festival. There are reasons to think that the contrasts between New Orleans and the rest of America run deeper than those on display a few weeks ago. Although the contrasts have attracted attention for a long time, efforts to assert them have become something of a local cottage industry in the last few years. Some of this—including most of what was presented during the Super Bowl—is meant to attract and please tourists. Some of it is meant to challenge dominant ideas about how economic life is organized in the U.S. today. Some evokes parts of American history that challenge how we think of ourselves. I wonder what would happen if we put some of that on display for visitors the next time a big event comes to town?