Mercedes-Benz Superdome is Aging Gracefully
The Superdome shows that youth isn’t everything.
CHERYL GERBER PHOTOGRAPHS
As big-league football stadiums go, the domed structure along Poydras Street in downtown New Orleans has probably reached late middle age. Some might even term it elderly had it not undergone a substantial revitalization during the past decade. Yet this workhorse of a stadium keeps delivering on the promise it showed when its doors first opened nearly 38 years ago.
This month the Mercedes-Benz Superdome hosts the NFL Super Bowl for the seventh time and becomes the centerpiece for the national and international media attention the big game brings to the city. Super Bowl XLVII comes in the middle of a string of major sports events that will continue into 2014 and help ensure that New Orleans remains front and center in the eyes of sports and tourism marketers.
Doug Thornton sees a satisfying symmetry in the building’s evolution. The regional vice president of the Dome’s management company SMG, Thornton says events of recent years represent the second time that the building has served as the launching pad for a critical economic leap forward by New Orleans.
“If you look at the history of sports and tourism in New Orleans, you can trace the roots back to the construction of the Superdome in 1975,” he says.
Noting that the Dome predated the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center’s construction by nearly 10 years, Thornton points out that the stadium allowed New Orleans to host a Republican National Convention, a visit by the pope and events that put the city on the big-league sports map, including big boxing matches and multiple Super Bowls and Final Fours. Those events sparked growth in visitor numbers that produced a surge of hotel construction and hospitality expansion.
“We saw a real increase in the popularity of New Orleans as a destination that began with the construction of the Superdome,” Thornton says.
Jump ahead to 2005 and the agonizing months that followed Hurricane Katrina. The devastation was so extensive and severe that many people questioned whether New Orleans could survive. Again, says Thornton, the Superdome became a focal point.
“We have spent the last seven years rebuilding the infrastructure, stimulated once again by the Superdome,” he says. “Just as the Dome was the forerunner in 1975 to our modern-day tourism era, it was the first public building to reopen against unthinkable odds after Katrina with the goal of doing the very same thing.”
The $330 million renovation of the Dome, aided by a hefty injection of Federal Emergency Management Agency and state funds, gave the building an almost totally new interior that enabled it to welcome back the Saints and to bid future events.
With the crucial support of the Greater New Orleans Sports Foundation, the Dome and the next-door New Orleans Arena landed two BCS Championship football matchups, an NCAA Men’s Final Four and a Super Bowl; continued the annual Allstate Sugar Bowl; remained hosting the annual Essence Music Festival; and scheduled an NBA All-Star game, all while staging major conventions and trade shows between sports seasons.
“There’s no city in America that has hosted the string of major events in the compressed time frame that we’ve had over the last two-and-a-half years,” Thornton says. “It’s an unprecedented run.”
The city’s success in drawing big events also attracted the attention of powerful business interests who previously may not have given much thought to New Orleans. In October 2011, German automaker Mercedes-Benz announced it had bought naming rights to the Superdome.
“One of the most recognizable brands in the world chose to put its name on this facility,” Thornton says. “It’s a validation of all the work that has been done here to bring the Superdome back.”
From the standpoint of Mercedes-Benz USA CEO Stephen Cannon, the company’s decision to buy naming rights to the Dome was practically a no-brainer. For one thing, the luxury automaker was looking to expand its customer base into younger age groups and was preparing to introduce its first model with a starting price below $36,000. The company saw sports-related promotions as an excellent way to snag young car buyers’ attention.
“We saw a huge opportunity in New Orleans, knowing that the Super Bowl would be coming there in a couple of years and we’d have this brand new vehicle launching,” Cannon says.
Cannon, who previously headed Mercedes-Benz’s marketing division, says he “quarterbacked” the 10-year naming rights deal, which some reports valued at more than $100 million. He says the company’s signage and branding inside and outside the Superdome “is the best in the business.” He adds that Mercedes-Benz has leveraged that branding with advertising in televised sports events in the Dome, including of course, the Super Bowl.
Mercedes-Benz advertised in the big game for only the second time when it anteed up millions of dollars for a 60-second commercial in the fourth quarter of Super Bowl XLVII. Building on its connection with New Orleans and the New Orleans Saints – team owner Tom Benson also owns Mercedes dealerships – the company filmed its splashy commercial in the French Quarter and cast singer Usher and super model Kate Upton in scenes showcasing the new CLA model Mercedes-Benz on local streets.
“How often do you have an ad in a Super Bowl that’s taking place in your house at a time when you’re launching a new vehicle like this?” Cannon says. “All that aligned perfectly.”
Thornton terms the relationship among Mercedes-Benz, the Saints, the state and New Orleans “a great partnership.” And he can’t help circling back to the Superdome when he’s looking to bestow credit.
“It’s all pretty remarkable for a stadium that’s soon to be 38 years old,” Thornton says.
Facts About the Mercedes-Benz Superdome
Here are some of the significant dates and events during the history of New Orleans’ famous domed stadium:
• Construction authorized by law in November 1966.
• Construction begins in August 1971.
• Superdome opens in August 1975.
• First Sugar Bowl game held in Dome in 1976 (with 35 more to follow).
• Pistol Pete Maravich and New Orleans Jazz draw crowd of 35,000 in 1977.
• Sugar Ray Leonard defeats Roberto Duran in “no mas” fight, November 1980.
• Dome sets world record for indoor concert attendance when 87,500 people gather for a Rolling Stones concert, December 1981.
• Pope John Paul II addresses 80,000 school children, September 1987.
• George H.W. Bush is nominated for re-election at Republican National Convention, August 1988.
• New Orleans Saints defeat Atlanta Falcons in first return to the Dome after Hurricane Katrina, September 2006.
• Saints beat Eagles to advance to NFC championship game for the first time, January 2007.
• LSU beats Ohio State to win BCS Championship, January 2008.
• Saints defeat Vikings in overtime to win first-ever home NFC Championship game and advance to Super Bowl, Jan. 2010.
• Hosted five NCAA Men’s Basketball Final Fours (latest in 2012).
• Hosted three BCS College Football Championships games (latest in 2012)
• Hosted seven Super Bowls, with the first in 1978 and the latest in 2013.