Opening LSU’s ‘neutral site’ against Florida State: How the Sugar Bowl helped make it a reality | USL

It took more than a little while for the Allstate Sugar Bowl to get into “classic” college football season opener activity.

About 14, in fact.

Long before LSU and Florida State agreed to a “neutral site” game at 6:30 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 4 at Caesars Superdome, executives were working on something else.

In 2008, the Sugar Bowl was “just a few details away” from being able to stage a Notre Dame-Baylor game for 2012 at the Superdome.

Whatever these “few details” turned out to be decisive factors. A year later, the game “sort of disappeared from the map,” said then-Sugar Bowl CEO Paul Hoolahan.

Since then, other efforts to get things done have failed, in part because Southern Decadence made vacancies scarce over Labor Day weekend.

The bowl helped in 2017 when LSU and BYU had to move their play from Houston due to Hurricane Harvey, but that hardly counts. And in 1942, the Sugar Bowl hosted the East-West Shrine Game, which was moved from San Francisco following Pearl Harbor.

But now LSU and Florida State will meet in the first Allstate Louisiana Kickoff.

“I don’t think we could ask for a better game,” bowl CEO Jeff Hundley said. “We have two nationally recognized teams with enthusiastic fans who are going to have a great time and provide the city with a significant economic impact. It’s a win-win for everyone. »

For the past twelve years, LSU has played openers from neutral sites in Houston; Atlanta; Green Bay, Wis.; and Arlington, TX.

Hundley, who took over from Hoolahan in 2019, said Bowl has been working with LSU to set up a game for New Orleans since 2017.

LSU’s presence was instrumental in securing Florida State, which in turn worked with the Florida Citrus Bowl to set up a “return” game between the Tigers and Seminoles next year in Orlando.

The two-game deal was announced in February 2020, just after LSU won the CFP championship, making it an easy sell to ABC/ESPN to put the game in an exclusive Sunday night timeslot.

“We’re able to pay both schools generously while ensuring we have a game that helps our financial situation,” Hundley said.

That’s important, because the Sugar Bowl needs to muster all of its resources to compete for a spot in the CFP rotation when the current contract expires after the 2025 season. The playoffs are set to drop from four teams to eight or 12, a move that could make the Sugar Bowl a playoff game every year.

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That’s why the bowl is cautious about committing to future opening weekend games, especially ones that don’t include LSU.

“Fundamentally, we need to take risk out of the equation,” Hundley said. “That means you have to make sure the numbers work for the teams, but it doesn’t work unless you know you’re going to be successful as well.

“We are now talking at LSU about a future game, but it has to be the right year with the right partner.”

The kickoff classics, which debuted in the 1990s before the regular season stretched to 12 games, may be a dying breed.

Schools are finding that fans prefer better non-conference home games and are adjusting accordingly.

This year, only New Orleans and Atlanta are hosting neutral site games on opening weekend.

This year, the Sugar Bowl was also able to work with local hotels to secure enough rooms for visiting fans — especially those from Florida State, which sold out its 30,000 ticket batch before LSU.

These neutral site openers are also different from post-season bowls, when teams show up for an entire week of events.

LSU and FSU only come to New Orleans the day before the game, eliminating the usual hospitality events that involve the Sugar Bowl and its committee members.

“They really like showing off New Orleans,” Hundley said. “But for the teams, it’s pretty much like another game.”

Well, not quite. Champions Square will host Tailgate Town, featuring food, interactive games and entertainment, highlighted by three-time Grammy nominee Sean Ardoin.

And the atmosphere inside the Dome will likely be just as one-sided if the game is in Baton Rouge or Tallahassee.

“This whole process has been a real learning curve for us,” Hundley said. “But hopefully we can put what we’ve learned to good use one day.”

Not yet 14 years from now.

Rachel J. Bradford