Lewis: Sun Belt finds happy home in New Orleans

The view of the French Quarter and riverfront from the 23rd floor of the Pan-American Life Building is spectacular.

But the visibility it brought the Sun Belt Conference was not.

That wasn’t the primary reason the league moved its headquarters a few blocks up Poydras Street to the Mercedes-Benz Superdome this summer after its lease was up, but it turned out to be an unexpected benefit.

On the stairway near Gate A leading to the conference offices which long ago was the home of the Convention & Visitors Bureau along with the Greater New Orleans Sports Foundation in its early days, predominately displayed is the league’s new logo.

“We were pleasantly surprised when we learned we would be able to get signage like that,” said Sun Belt Commissioner Karl Benson (no relation to Tom Benson whose approval presumably was needed). “We were sort of lost before though.

“Now maybe we won’t be behind closed doors so much.”

Indeed. Although the conference has been here since 1991, relocating from the Galleria to the Pan-Am building in 2000, and was the driving force behind the creation of the R+L Carriers New Orleans Bowl a decade later, sometimes even those who should know that fact don’t.

It should have been significant enough that the Sun Belt is one of 10 Football Bowl Subdivision conferences and as such has at permanent seat on the NCAA’s Board of Directors as well as the BCS (soon to be College Football Playoff) governing body.

And there is the bowl game, which has blossomed in the past two years thanks to Louisiana-Lafayette fans following the Ragin’ Cajuns in big numbers.

But now, the conference is bringing more events to New Orleans.

The men’s and women’s basketball tournaments will be played in Lakefront Arena for at least the next three years and “for the foreseeable feature,” according to Benson.

The tournament, which had ended on Tuesdays in recent years when it was played in Hot Springs, Ark., and before that at various campus locations because of TV considerations, will have its championship games on Selection Sunday, meaning fans will be able to make a weekend of it.

The league tennis tournament will be played in City Park for the next two years, and, thanks to closer ties with the Sports Foundation, Benson wants to bring more conference championships here.

And that’s despite UNO’s pulling out of the conference in 2010 when it intended to leave Division I. Now, even though the Privateers are in the Southland Conference, Benson has no problem playing what he calls “our signature event,” in their arena.

“New Orleans is in the heart of our footprint,” Benson said. “Plus it’s a city our fans want to come to.

“That made it a natural choice.”

But not an automatic one.

The fact the office lease was up plus the departure of UNO had Benson, who succeeded Wright Waters as commissioner last year, checking out other cities as potential sites for both the headquarters and the basketball tournaments.

Memphis, Tenn., Nashville, Tenn., Orlando, Fla., Birmingham, Ala., and Atlanta all got a look-see, as did Mobile, Ala., which, as the home of league member South Alabama, the GoDaddy Bowl, which features a Sun Belt team and an aggressive attitude toward about college sports would have been a logical move.

But, in the end, New Orleans prevailed. A bonus: 12 professional-level jobs remain here because of that.

“New Orleans was just the best place,” said Benson, who recently purchased a home in Metairie after renting during his first year on the job. “We’re here to stay.”

And maybe now, more people will be aware of that fact.