"It's not just a game for us, it's not just a single event. It's something that you work on for weeks at a time." — Jay Corenswet of the Allstate Sugar Bowl Committee
As the Allstate Sugar Bowl turns 75, the annual pigskin party has become inseparable with the city that hosts it.
By Alejandro de los Rios
Back in 1933, with the United States in the midst of the Great Depression and Prohibition going strong, New Orleanians Fred Digby and Warren V. Miller, along with a small group of local businessmen, realized their dream of putting on a football game that showcased the best in amateur athletics as well as the culture of New Orleans.
Today, Jay Corenswet sits on the Allstate Sugar Bowl committee that oversees the planning and organizing of Digby and Miller's brainchild. And while the Sugar Bowl has stuck to the founders' core values, "I can't imagine they would have been able to forecast how big the game has become," Corenswet says.
Now celebrating its 75th year, the Sugar Bowl has become a premier New Orleans event. As one of the four Bowl Championship Series games (along with the Rose, Fiesta and Orange Bowls) the Sugar Bowl has grown into one of the country's biggest sporting events of the year. This week's matchup between the University of Alabama Crimson Tide and the University of Utah Utes will involve more than 100 local business sponsors, generate an estimated $175 million for the city of New Orleans (including $6 million spent by the Sugar Bowl committee alone), and attract an estimated 100,000 visitors to the Crescent City during an otherwise slow tourist season.
New Orleans Convention and Visitors Bureau spokesperson Mary Beth Romig said the Sugar Bowl provides national television marketing opportunities the city would otherwise be unable to afford — everything from cut-in scenes of the city during the game to radio coverage about the Big Easy. Most important, though, New Orleans knows it can count on hosting the Sugar Bowl.
"That's the beauty of the Sugar Bowl," Romig said. "We know it's here every year. We don't have to bid on it like the Super Bowl or the Final Four."
The spectacle the game has become today is a direct product of the time and energy put in by the Sugar Bowl committee members, all of which are direct descendents of the game's original founders. "It's not just a game for us, it's not just a single event," Corenswet says. "It's something that you work on for weeks at a time."
For Corenswet, the Sugar Bowl has been a part of his life since he was born. His father, Sam Corenswet Jr., is the oldest living Sugar Bowl committee member, having served since 1948. Sam Corenswet got involved because his father, Sam Corenswet Sr., helped organize the inaugural game back in 1933.
"People like New Orleans, they like coming here," Sam Corenswet says. "We've been told that we do a much better job than most of the bowls do of entertaining." He recalls teams telling him how nice it is that everything is so close together [geographically] and that when ABC first started televising the game, the TV crew would walk to the Superdome from the Royal Orleans Hotel.
But the games themselves have made for some rich history. Second only to the Rose Bowl in age, the Sugar Bowl has crowned 20 national champions, more than any other bowl, and has set the stage for 14 Heisman Trophy winners and 40 Hall of Fame coaches to show off their talent. The Miller-Digby Award, given to the game's most outstanding player, has been held aloft by the likes of Archie Manning, Dan Marino, Herschel Walker, Bo Jackson and Jerome Bettis.
This year, 'Bama makes its 13th appearance, tied for most all-time appearances with Louisiana State University, and will be accompanied by its famously well-traveled, crimson-clad and rowdy fan base. Even the University of Utah, newbies to the Sugar Bowl, has felt the strong appeal of the game among students and fans that might not have otherwise made it to the Big Easy. Tony Pizza, the sports editor for the student-run Daily Utah Chronicle, said the excitement among Utah fans to spend time in New Orleans is palpable.
"I don't think you could pick a better city to host a bowl game," he says. "People are trying to get student loans or do anything they can do to go down there."
Earlier this month the Salt Lake Tribune reported that Utah's ticket office was overwhelmed by the demand for Sugar Bowl tickets — phone lines jammed, the computer system crashed an hour after tickets became available. All this, Pizza explains, despite the fact Utah fans aren't hoping for their team to win as much as they want to see them compete well against a powerhouse Southeastern Conference (SEC) team.
"When you're a fan of a non-BCS team, you enjoy the ride as much as you can," he says. "[Utah] wants to put out their best effort and show the country they are a contender."
New Orleans' reputation for throwing a good party also does a lot to attract fans. After all, is it really any wonder the Sugar Bowl was able to achieve instant popularity despite being born in the midst of the Great Depression? Or that the first game happened the same year that Prohibition ended?
As the Bowl has grown, much of the pre-game entertainment and traditions have found homes with local businesses. Pat O'Brien's in the French Quarter (which also celebrates its 75th anniversary this year) hosts an annual party for the wives and girlfriends of players and coaches. Shelly Waguespack, vice president of Pat O's, said the landmark New Orleans bar has supported the Sugar Bowl as long as she can remember. A more than 20-year-old tradition, the wives and girlfriends party is emblematic of how people who come for the game end up embracing the local culture.
"They have Bloody Marys and mint juleps and decorate their second-line umbrellas here," she says. "The SEC comes in and they want to spend a lot of money and generally want to absorb themselves in the community."
And, while college football fans may worry when lesser-known teams like Utah get a chance to play in the Sugar Bowl, Romig of the Convention and Visitors Bureau said it provides the city with an exciting opportunity to market itself to a new audience.
"Many [Utah fans] perhaps have never been to New Orleans," Romig says. "Just the chance to hear someone from New Orleans talk about all there is to do outside of the game is a great opportunity for us to market the city as a destination."
Such is the tradition of the Sugar Bowl. More than just a game, it's a celebration of southern hospitality and New Orleans culture. Over the years it has attracted legendary coaches and players and countless college football fans that have provided a substantial boon to the local economy. And while millions across the country focuses on the game's outcome, Jay Corenswet and the rest of the Sugar Bowl committee members abstain.
"I was taught as a young child that we do not root for a team," he explained. "It's impolite to root for a team because we are hosts. Historically, we want the best two teams that are available. We want a good game."
For Corenswet and the other Sugar Bowl organizers, the game is the embodiment of a long-held principle in the Crescent City: the final score is not as important as making sure everyone has a good time.
SIDEBAR 1 OF 1
The 75th ALLSTATE SUGAR BOWL CLASSIC
University of Alabama Crimson Tide
vs. University of Utah Utes
Fri., Jan. 2, 2009, 7 p.m.
WVUE-TV FOX 8