“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.”