Dynamic duo works their magic to bring game to N.O. for record 11th time

In a 28th-floor conference room in the Entergy Tower, eight days before they were supposed to pitch the NFL on why the 2018 Super Bowl belongs in New Orleans, Rod West and Stephen Perry insisted they did not feel any pressure.

Pressure, in their words, is what people feel when they’re asked to do something they’re not prepared to do. And both West, executive vice president and chief administrative officer of Entergy, and Perry, head of the New Orleans Convention & Visitors Bureau, have been priming themselves for months to convince the owners of the 32 NFL teams that the wisest business decision they can make is to hold Super Bowl LII in their city.

“We walk in having prepared to win,” West said, as Perry nodded in a seat to his right. “I don’t go in worrying about failure. I plan out of a fear of failure, but I execute with the idea of getting it done.”

West and Perry’s 15-minute presentation in a closed-door meeting at the Ritz-Carlton in Atlanta’s Buckhead neighborhood Tuesday won’t be the sole determining factor in whether New Orleans will get to host a Super Bowl for a record 11th time. Sam Joffray and the rest of the Greater New Orleans Sports Foundation have been developing the bid for the game even since before it was formally invited to do so in October alongside two other finalists, Indianapolis and Minneapolis.

But West and Perry’s pitch — as well as an address from Saints owner Tom Benson afterward — will be among the last things the league hears prior to voting on which city to award the 52nd edition of the Super Bowl. There’s no denying the importance of that, which is why the men responsible for delivering that final presentation put their faith only in their studying and rehearsals that have preceded it.

West and Perry find neither confidence in, nor pressure to, perpetuate the commonly held belief that New Orleans has never failed in a Super Bowl bid. They feel similarly about the fact that they were the ones who — in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, in 2009 — gave the presentation at the conclusion of New Orleans’ successful bid to host Super Bowl XLVII in February 2013.

“Every year, the bar is raised in terms of the expectation that you’re going to have to outcompete,” West said. “We know going in that it doesn’t benefit us at all by recalling 2009 sort of wistfully and thinking to ourselves, ‘Man this should be easy because we did (it) before.’ Oh God, no — it’s a whole different ballgame.”

Perry described the group he and West are tasked with facing as “32 billionaire businessmen who built ... empires ... not upon nostalgia.”

“They are built upon making the proper business decisions (going) forward,” Perry said. “There is never a time when you have to re-earn your position as much as when you stand in front of that group.”

Therefore, in addition to running their respective entities, they’ve been memorizing mounds of data related to a bid that lays out why playing a Super Bowl in New Orleans in its tricentennial year makes perfect business sense — and that’s without extolling the city’s ample options for dining, dancing, diversion and lodging around the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.

It’s no small feat. The specifics of the bid occupy a total of 128 pages presented digitally on a tablet computer. Stripped down, they fill up a 16-page printed summary.

West — once an attorney for the Jones, Walker law firm — said studying the material, then practicing how to smoothly talk about it reminded him of the manner in which lawyers ready themselves for trial.

As it is, West and Perry are accustomed to returning phone calls as late as 10 p.m. on typical days, and they’ve been known to send 1:30 a.m. emails. It’s not merely for the work the titles printed on their business cards demand — West, for example, serves on the Allstate Sugar Bowl committee, and Perry was appointed to the LSU Board of Supervisors in 2011.

These days, as the presentation nears and the study sessions intensify, emails and phone calls are keeping both up later, waking them up earlier and reducing chances for leisure more than usual.

Smiling, Perry remarked: “My wife has a joke. (She calls and says), ‘What time do you think you’ll cancel dinner tonight? 2? 4? 6?’ ”

Yet neither sees the presentation as a burden, for a few reasons.

One: They each separately described it as “an honor” to be entrusted with a pitch that could help bring an estimated $400 million in business to everything from hotels jam-packed with visitors to local florists being hired to supply arrangements at secondary events.

Two: Some of their most challenging professional experiences have taught them how crucial it is to be adequately ready. Less than 20 years after being a tight end on a Notre Dame football team that was the 1988 national champion, West was in charge of Entergy New Orleans’ electric distribution operations during the widespread devastation of Hurricane Katrina.

He was president and CEO of Entergy New Orleans when Hurricane Gustav caused utility failures throughout the area in 2008, and he was in his current spot when Hurricane Isaac did the same in 2012.

Perry, meanwhile, relentlessly hopped on all kinds of media networks — CNN, NPR, NBC and Fox News among them — to tell the world why it was still worth booking trips and bringing events to New Orleans in the wake of Katrina and the BP oil spill.

The message was received: A University of New Orleans study recently concluded that the city attracted more than 9 million visitors who spent $6.5 billion last year, enabling Louisiana to set a tourism record.

“I don’t equate for one second the gravity of this assignment with some of the things we have endured,” West said about the upcoming presentation, which might need to deal with questions from owners about the blackout in the Superdome that resulted in a 35-minute delay in play the last time the Super Bowl was there.

But, about the storms, he noted: “Many of those things ... all inform us ... on the importance of preparing.”

Finally, three: West and Perry will be vying against presentations on behalf of two cities who’d love nothing more than to swipe Super Bowl LII from New Orleans, regarded by many as the favorite.

The bid from Minneapolis (which hasn’t hosted a Super Bowl since 1992) centers around a $1 billion stadium being built to open in time for the Vikings’ 2016 campaign. The game, organizers say, would integrate neighboring St. Paul’s winter carnival. It’d let the region celebrate the season a week before the Winter Olympics, with thousands of media members reporting from twin cities that are home to numerous Fortune 500 companies.

Indianapolis in all likelihood will sell the universally praised job it did in 2012 — especially in the hospitality sector — while it hosted its first Super Bowl.

Each city has touted the tens of millions of dollars it’s gotten from corporate sponsors. Joffray said that aspect isn’t part of New Orleans’ bid, for it has a long history of Super Bowl funding and can count on all of its sponsors from the 2013 game to commit the required money if the contest is awarded to the city.

Minneapolis’ bid presenters will be Richard Davis, chairman and CEO of U.S. Bank, and Marilyn Carlson Nelson, retired chairwoman and CEO of Carlson Companies. Indianapolis said it didn’t plan on naming its presenters until Monday. Nonetheless, by league mandates, they can’t be celebrities or players.

It’s expected that owners Jim Irsay, of the Colts; Zygi and Mark Wilf, of the Vikings; and Benson, of the Saints, will be lobbying for votes in support of their cities.

Irsay would be doing so after an arrest on suspicion of driving under the influence in March and subsequently entering rehabilitation treatment. Benson would be doing so after undergoing surgery to repair a torn medial meniscus in his left knee May 9.

But Benson had returned to work by Wednesday, and he’s “been rehabbing ... hard” so he can be there when the bid process culminates, his wife, Gayle, said.

The Benson family said it wouldn’t want anyone other than West or Perry breaking down the merits of New Orleans’ bid to their peers in the NFL owners club.

“New Orleans is the sports and entertainment capital of the world because of the work these men have done for years through every role, job or volunteer position they have each taken in their respective careers,” said Rita Benson LeBlanc, Saints co-owner and vice chairwoman of the board. “I am proud to complete this Super Bowl bid with their persuasive enthusiasm.”

In the meantime, West and Perry vowed to continue sacrificing what little sleep they’re accustomed to getting, at least until the NFL reveals to them whether they managed to haul the big game back to their city once more.

“It’s the adrenaline that’ll keep us up,” West said. “It’s not the worry.”

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Advocate sports writer Ted Lewis contributed to this report.