New Orleans Bowl moves closer to holidays

NEW ORLEANS -- The New Orleans Bowl, which has kicked off
the bowl season since its inception in 2001, will move to a weekend
night this year -- and give up its leadoff spot.

The game matching the Sun Belt Conference Champion against a
Conference USA opponent will be played Friday, Dec. 22.

"It was nice being the first bowl, but it's more important to
grow the event in New Orleans," said bowl executive director Billy
Ferrante, who worked out the new date with ESPN, which will
televise the game. "This benefits the hospitality community
because people are more inclined to travel toward the end of the

Because of its early date, particularly in 2002, 2003 and 2004
when it was played on the second Tuesday in December, it ran into
conflicts with final exams and fans had difficulty making a midweek
trip before the Christmas holidays began.

Last year's game was played Dec. 20 in Lafayette because of
damage to the Superdome from Hurricane Katrina.

Sun Belt commissioner Wright Waters, who put together the bowl
and served as its first executive director, said the move should
help solidify the game.

"The TV numbers have been good because we were the first bowl
game, but the closer you can get to the holidays, the better," he

While the bowl has the date it sought, it does face other

Wyndham Hotels, which signed a title sponsorship agreement in
2004, dropped it last year when the game was moved because it has
no properties in Lafayette. The company is now out of the picture

However, Ferrante was optimistic about finding a new title

"We have a financial model in place that allows us to operate
without one," he said. "But having a sponsor allows us to put
some finer touches on the game and eventually take it to a
different level."

The bowl faces re-certification later this month. The game was
granted conditional approval last year, even though it has had
problems meeting the NCAA minimum average attendance requirement of

Last year's game between Southern Mississippi and Arkansas State
drew 18,338, but Ferrante said that because of the circumstances
the NCAA had indicated it would be granted an exception.

With the New Orleans Bowl set for Dec. 22, the GMAC Bowl on Dec.
20 in Mobile, Ala., becomes the first bowl game of the season.