Lewis: Bayou Classic not exactly what it once was

NEW ORLEANS — According to the company hired to manage the Bayou Classic a year ago, the event will draw more than 200,000 visitors to New Orleans this weekend.

If that’s so, then 160,000 of them probably won’t attend Saturday’s Southern-Grambling game in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.

And therein lies a problem.

Hyperbole aside, the Bayou Classic isn’t what it used to be.

People, whether they’re actually elsewhere in the Crescent City or just the project of some overly imaginative promotion company, are staying away in droves.

There was a time when the Jaguars and the Tigers annually filled the Superdome.

No more.

Announced attendance for the past two years was 43,494 and 40,175, the two lowest numbers ever.

The reasons are many.

Southern’s downtrodden state since the glory years of the Pete Richardson era is a factor.

Jaguar Nation doesn’t follow mediocrity.

But the Bayou Classic should be like Army-Navy, a rivalry in which records don’t matter.

Most likely, though, it’s a matter of discretionary spending choices by a limited demographic during tough economic times.

For two schools that depend heavily on the Bayou Classic — not just ticket sales, but through corporate sponsorships and TV ad revenue (the schools purchase actually purchase the airtime from NBC), down years for the Bayou Classic are akin to a retail store having a bad Christmas season. It’s hard to make it up elsewhere.

“Right now, we’re getting about 5 percent of the money spent here during Bayou Classic weekend going for tickets, 10 percent if you include the Battle of the Bands,” Southern Athletic Director William Broussard said. “Well, we need people who are coming to New Orleans for the weekend and spending their money shopping, eating or in the casino to buy a few more tickets and come to the game.

“That’s the only way we can make this work.”

Not that Broussard or his Grambling counterparts are threatening to move the event elsewhere as the saber-rattling predecessors did when fans complained, rightly so, about hotel price gouging.

Making it a home-and-home on-campus series, is, as Grambling coach Doug Williams said, the worst-case scenario.

So the focus has been on improving the product — such as holding pregame activities in Champions Square.

So is a rejuvenation of the Bayou Classic ahead?

Probably not to the level of the glory days. Times and tastes change.

But it’s similar to an imaginary phone call Williams, MVP of the first Bayou Classic in 1974, said he had with the late Eddie Robinson in which they discussed his team’s 1-9 plight. Robinson, Williams said, told him: “Hell, Cat. You’ve got to weather the storm.

“And then you find a way to get better.”