The Mercedes-Benz Superdome, known as one of the loudest stadiums in the bowl world, found itself at a much-lower volume level in 2020. The New Orleans Saints, whose deafening crowds have given them a decided home-field advantage, played their home games with several thousand fans, at most, in 2020. Photo by Derick E. Hingle.

The COVID-19 Pandemic

The Allstate Sugar Bowl Has the Wherewithal to Weather Adversity

by Trey Iles for the Allstate Sugar Bowl, December 17, 2020

In its 87-year existence, the Allstate Sugar Bowl has seen its share of history and been through plenty of adversity. Born out of the depression, the Sugar Bowl has witnessed and endured World War II, the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, numerous economic downturns, the evolution of college football’s postseason and, perhaps its biggest test, Hurricane Katrina in 2005-06.

But the current COVID-19 pandemic may top them all or, at least, equal the worst of times. When Sugar Bowl President Ralph Capitelli took the reins of the organization in February in 2020, he noted there would be challenges as there were every year. But not even he could have imagined what was to come.

When the effects of the pandemic cascaded in the middle of March of 2020, life all over the world was altered. It certainly has had a profound effect on the Sugar Bowl as well. It’s upended the organization’s budget, altered – several times over – how the event will take place and cancelled many of the satellite functions in which the Sugar Bowl takes as much pride in putting on as the game itself.

ASM Global, the management company for the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, developed the VenueShield plan, a best-in-class hygienic re-opening plan, to ensure fan-safety in the pandemic. VenueShield utilizes electrostatic cleaning, a state-of-the-art technology that creates a germ-free between people’s hands and all surfaces they touch in the building.

“Every day a new dip or turn,” Capitelli said. “It’s been quite a challenge. I saw (former Sugar Bowl President) Mark Romig a while back. He was the president the year of Katrina when we had to move the game to Atlanta. Of course, everybody thought that his year was the most unusual year because of the storm’s aftermath. He looked at me and said, ‘You topped me.’ “

As difficult as this year has been, Sugar Bowl Chief Executive Officer Jeff Hundley said facing the battles of the past have allowed the organization and its staff to work through the many challenges posed by the unrelenting pandemic. Heretofore, Katrina was the benchmark for the organization when it came to overcoming adversity. Yet despite having to move the game to Atlanta and navigate through the ruins, both economic and physical in the New Orleans area, the Sugar Bowl emerged as strong as it ever was.

“In speaking to our membership a couple of months ago, I drew back on times over the history where we’ve had to adapt and overcome,” Hundley said. “An organization this old doesn’t stay as relevant as it has for decades without being able to adapt to change and circumstances. That’s a credit to the committee members and leadership here. They are willing and able to do so.

“There are bowl games around the country that have elected not to play. Fortunately, we’re in the position of being able to push forward until the finish line or until the virus says we can’t.”

College Football Playoff Executive Director Bill Hancock said no bowl or organization is better suited to face the adversity presented by the pandemic than the Sugar Bowl because of its history.

“The Sugar Bowl staff and committee are terrific,” Hancock said. “You can always count on them to calmly and thoroughly assess every situation. They have been adaptable and thoughtful throughout the pandemic — and always, for that matter.

“Everyone in college football learned from the example that the Sugar Bowl folks set in responding to Katrina. (Former Sugar Bowl CEO) Paul Hoolahan, Jeff Hundley and the committee quickly rose to the challenge then, teaching us all how to deal with the unthinkable. I particularly appreciate their good humor and spirit. Whatever cards are dealt to them, they play it quite well.”

But it certainly has not been at all easy. And when the pandemic finally ends, it will leave scars on the game as it will every person and facet of life around the world.

“This has been a constantly shifting and evolving situation that has had us planning and re-planning,” Hundley said. “Every time you think you have your arms around a certain topic or subject, something changes. And you’ve got to rethink it or plan again. From the time this started to where we are now, we’ve probably done almost 20 different budgets just trying to prepare and cut back.”

Through seasoned leadership over the last 30 years, the Sugar Bowl has been an outstanding steward of its resources. That’s a vital reason as to why it has remained one of college football’s premiere bowl games and part of the College Football Playoff.

But the pandemic is having a profound effect on those resources. Last year, the Sugar Bowl was the primary host of the College Football Playoff National Championship in which LSU defeated Clemson to cap off a storybook season. But that came with a significant cost. The combination of putting on the regular Sugar Bowl game, which featured Baylor and Georgia, as well as the title contest cost the Sugar Bowl organization about $10 million.

“We were looking to get a small portion of that back this year,” said Hundley, who noted this year’s game is a CFP semifinal contest. “That’s not likely to happen. Now the exercise is to try and break even. But even that is out of our control. Even into December, we don’t know how many fans we’ll be able to have in the stadium on game day [NOTE: that number is expected to be 3,000]. That all goes to the bottom line. So it’s a little different deal that we’re having to accept. It’s not easy for an organization that has a tried-and-true template on how to do it.”

Not being able to roll out the full Sugar Bowl experience for the teams, support personnel and fans has been equally disappointing, Capitelli and Hundley said.

“As it turns out now, we may have the game and not much else,” Capitelli said. “That part is so disappointing. The people who make up our organization love college football. They love interacting with the schools and the coaches and the administrators and the fans that come. This year the team will be in a bubble and we won’t be able to do any of that. It’s hard. But everyone has pulled together and I’m proud of that.”

Another disappointing part of the equation is not being able to hold the numerous satellite events. The Sugar Bowl puts on more than 50 events during the year and supports and honors thousands of student-athletes each year. The organization takes as much pride in those aspects as it does the actual game.

“That’s been one of the hardest pills to swallow,” Hundley said. “We understand the situation but it doesn’t make the loss any less. The Sugar Bowl committee is a volunteer organization. The payoff for them is to produce and participate in all the events that go around the game and leading up to the game and having access to the teams and coaches which we won’t have. It’s unfortunate. But another fact life in this COVID time. We’ve all adapted and moved on. There is a sense of disappointment. But we’ll rally and put a smile on and finish this thing off.”

Among the duties for this year’s game is preparing the teams, Sugar Bowl staff and all those who assist with the game with COVID preparation and protocols. Hundley said having Tulane’s Dr. Gregory Stewart assist with that has been invaluable. Stewart was one of the leaders in helping the American Athletic Conference develop its COVID protocols for its athletes and support staff.

“None of us had any feeling for COVID protocol at the time when it started,” Hundley said. “Luckily, we’ve gotten a lot of help from Dr. Stewart. He’s been a tremendous resource.

“And even the development of those protocols has changed over time. We think of things that we didn’t early on. Testing for teams, testing everybody involved with game management. Testing for Sugar Bowl staff during the month of December and leading up to the game. We can’t afford to have an outbreak in the office and not be able to produce the game when the time comes. It has been interesting to say the least.”

In addition, the Sugar Bowl has called upon the expertise of the College Football Playoff organization as well as the conferences that make up the Football Bowl Subdivision. Learning from them has helped the Sugar Bowl develop its plan to hold this year’s contest.

“Bill Hancock and his staff have been another set of eyes for us,” Hundley said. “That’s because of their access to the conference commissioners, they have great access to the medical reports and experts that each conference uses. That has been helpful as we’ve gone through this process. They’ve had to be flexible as well. We have had weekly calls with (Hancock’s) staff for several months now going back to the summer. We have been able to devise a plan that we believe will work.”

While the College Football Playoff will be different this year, Hancock said it will be no less compelling than the previous editions of what has captivated the college football world.

“Of course, fewer people will be in the stadium,” Hancock said. “The teams will be in town only two days as compared to five or six in the past.  But the players and coaches have worked hard all season, with the semifinals as the goal. I like to emphasize the experience for the players; certainly they will all remember 2020, including the days they spend in New Orleans.”

Capitelli said he’s proud of how the entire organization has reacted to the pandemic. The effort has been above and beyond the call of duty, he said, and with many in the organization dealing with the effects of the pandemic on themselves and their families.

“I want to compliment Jeff and the entire staff for being so resilient and working through all these issues and be able to adjust on the fly every day,” Capitelli said. “And our whole committee has been supportive. We’ve tackled other problems in the past and you can see that experience come through as we’ve gone through the pandemic.

“I believe that, despite all the tough headwinds we’ve faced, we’ll still show the best face of New Orleans. We’re resilient. And this may not be a year that we like but you’ll see us back in the future. I think even in this limited capacity, we’ll still put on as good an event as we possibly can.”

A half-million dollar donation by the Sugar Bowl helped organizations like Second Harvest Food Bank provide aid to assist the people in Louisiana hardest hit by the pandemic. Photo by Jay Vise.

Allstate Sugar Bowl Aids Pandemic Relief Effort with $500,000 Contribution

The Sugar Bowl Committee, which has been a part of the fabric of New Orleans since the organization’s inception in 1934, made a $500,000 donation to multiple local organizations working to alleviate the challenges of the current COVID-19 crisis.

The Allstate Sugar Bowl’s donation went to assist the Second Harvest Food Bank, the Greater New Orleans Foundation’s Service and Hospitality Family Assistance Fund and the Hospitality Cares Pandemic Response Fund (managed by United Way of Southeastern Louisiana).

“For decades, the Sugar Bowl has taken great pride as a good citizen of our local community,” said Sugar Bowl Committee President Ralph Capitelli at the time of the donation. “This organization’s primary mission is to generate tourism through amateur athletics. With the Covid-19 outbreak we’re temporarily on hold, but that doesn’t mean we can sit on the sidelines. With this donation, our aim is to help people in need, especially those in the hospitality industry whose livelihoods have been so negatively impacted by the Coronavirus.”

Second Harvest Food Bank is the largest charitable anti-hunger network in South Louisiana. Its mission is to end hunger by providing food, access, advocacy, education and disaster response. The Service and Hospitality Family Assistance Fund of the Greater New Orleans Foundation is a program providing grants for service and hospitality workers whose families are experiencing financial crisis due to the Covid-19 outbreak. The Hospitality Cares Pandemic Relief Fund of the United Way of Southeastern Louisiana provides crisis grants to hospitality workers who are unable to afford basic financial needs during the Covid-19 outbreak.

“United Way of Southeast Louisiana is grateful for the Sugar Bowl Committee’s contribution to our Hospitality Cares Pandemic Response Fund as it further demonstrates the committee’s longstanding dedication to the betterment of our community,” said Michael Williamson, President and CEO, United Way of Southeastern Louisiana. “The support will improve the well-being of 200 families across our region – for that, we are forever thankful.”

“We are so excited that the Allstate Sugar Bowl, an annual supporter of our Foundation, was able to help increase the impact of the Hospitality Cares fund,” said Jennifer Kelley, Executive Director, Louisiana Hospitality Foundation, which works in conjunction with the United Way of Southeastern Louisiana. “This gift shows their passion to support our hospitality workforce that has been displaced from their jobs due to the pandemic.”

“This incredible gift of love will help us provide 1.2 million emergency meals to our neighbors in need,” Natalie Jayroe, President and CEO of Second Harvest said. “During this response, we’ve had to purchase more food than ever before. Once again, this shows that sports is so much more than just a game to New Orleans and South Louisiana.”

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