Lewis: New Orleans Bowl has come into its own

Advocate staff photo by PATRICK DENNIS -- ULL players celebrate after  ULL's 43-34 win over  East Carolina in the 12th Annual R+L Carriers New Orleans Bowl Saturday in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.    MAGS OUT / INTERNET OUT/ONLINE OUT/NO SALES/TV OUT/FOREIGN OUT/LOUISIANA BUSINESS INC. OUT/GREATER BATON ROUGE BUSINESS REPORT OUT/225 OUT/10/12 OUT/IN REGISTER OUT/LBI CUSTOM PUBLICATIONS OUT/MANDATORY CREDIT THE ADVOCATE/PATRICK DENNIS. Show caption
Advocate staff photo by PATRICK DENNIS -- ULL players celebrate after ULL's 43-34 win over East Carolina in the 12th Annual R+L Carriers New Orleans Bowl Saturday in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. MAGS OUT / INTERNET OUT/ONLINE OUT/NO SALES/TV OUT/FOREIGN OUT/LOUISIANA BUSINESS INC. OUT/GREATER BATON ROUGE BUSINESS REPORT OUT/225 OUT/10/12 OUT/IN REGISTER OUT/LBI CUSTOM PUBLICATIONS OUT/MANDATORY CREDIT THE ADVOCATE/PATRICK DENNIS.

Just call it the little bowl that could.

After spending its first decade searching for recognition and relevance, the New Orleans Bowl has arrived.

And credit a healthy dose of Ragin’ Cajuns for making it happen.

“This is what we were waiting for,” said Billy Ferrante, the bowl’s executive director, after Louisiana-Lafayette and its rowdy fan following claimed their second straight New Orleans Bowl victory Saturday, a 43-34 win against East Carolina. “We’re where we’ve hoped we’d be. Today, we had the game we wanted and the crowd we wanted.”

Indeed. For the second straight year, the game set an attendance record — 48,828, a 6,347 bump over last year, when ULL played San Diego State, and 18,000-plus more than the mark before that. For a little perspective, that’s probably going to rank right in the middle of this year’s 35 bowl games.

College football in New Orleans is a hard sell — witness Tulane — and the Sugar Bowl is having a hard time moving tickets for the Florida/Louisville game. And frankly, previous New Orleans Bowl pairings like Troy/Rice and Florida Atlantic/Memphis weren’t going to move the needle either.

But ULL fans purchased more then 18,000 tickets directly from the school alone last year before upping that number to 21,000 this time. There was a good turnout of East Carolina fans as well. Not bad for a pre-Christmas matchup of teams from lower-tier conferences.

The bowl was founded in 2001 to give the New Orleans-based Sun Belt Conference, which began play as a football league that year, a guaranteed bowl for its champion. Anybody remember the ridicule when 5-6 North Texas, which didn’t win a game outside the Sun Belt, was that first champion?

The Greater New Orleans Sports Foundation took over the game the following year and has faithfully nurtured it since, including the Katrina year of 2005 when the game was moved to ULL.

And now, even though the Sports Foundation is the local organizing committee for events such as the upcoming Super Bowl, it still regards the New Orleans Bowl as its signature event.

“We’ve worked to establish a name for ourselves as one of the events that locals put on their calendars and look forward to,” Ferrante said. “And we’ve worked to make it a welcoming experience for the visiting teams and their fans. I think we’ve finally achieved brand equity.”

Certainly Friday’s Fan Fest in Champions Square was a hit. The area adjacent to the Superdome holds about 8,000 people, and it was packed with those who turned out on a chilly evening to hear the Beach Boys and Bad Company. This was the second year for the concert, but it was a considerable upgrade from the Rebirth Brass Band.

“We want to provide events that will make fans decide to come here rather than staying home and watching the game on ESPN,” Ferrante said. “And we’re able to use New Orleans and what it offers.”

So where does the bowl go from here?

Contracts with the Sun Belt and Conference USA have a year to run, and the shifting sands of realignment could mean change there. The Saturday before Christmas date will remain, and R+L Carriers renewed its sponsorship for another five years.

Certainly this year the fans had a good time, even those from the losing side.

“It’s been absolutely awesome,” said Dwayne Beck of Charlotte, N.C. “The city, the stadium, the fans and the atmosphere have been fantastic. We’d hope to go to the bowl in St. Petersburg (the Beef ‘O’ Brady’s Bowl), but now we want to come back here again. Yes! Yes! Yes!”