<
>

Future of Superdome still up in the air

ATLANTA -- The Sugar Bowl touched down in Atlanta on a rainy
Friday, moving in with a Southern neighbor that vows to be nothing
more than a three-month caretaker before sending the game back to
the Big Easy.

Amid all the glad-handing, promises to aid the recovery effort
and hopeful talk of returning to flood-ravaged New Orleans, at
least one major issue must be resolved before the 72-year-old Sugar
Bowl can go home.

What will become of the Superdome?

The Sugar Bowl needs a suitable place to play, but its stadium
for the past three decades was left in ruins by Hurricane Katrina --
the roof ripped open, the insides gutted by thousands of stranded
evacuees, the once-proud structure now a symbol of misery for those
caught up in the storm's devastating aftermath.

Bowl officials came up with a temporary solution for this
season, accepting an offer to play at the Georgia Dome on Jan. 2.

"We will make you feel good about this," Georgia Gov. Sonny
Perdue pledged to Sugar Bowl officials during a news conference at
the downtown Atlanta stadium. "Then it can return to its rightful
place -- New Orleans."

Atlanta already has the well-established Peach Bowl, which will
be played at the Georgia Dome just three days before the Sugar
(with a New Year's Day NFL game involving the Atlanta Falcons
sandwiched in between).

While city officials have talked of their desire to land a
treasured spot in the Bowl Championship Series, they have no
designs on making the Sugar more than a one-time-only deal. This is
merely a way to help a neighbor.

"I guess if a storm hit Augusta in early April and disrupted
our storied Masters, then we would know how you feel," Perdue told
the New Orleans contingent.

Atlanta was a logical replacement because of its ties to the
Southeastern Conference. The SEC holds its annual football
championship at the Georgia Dome and has long been affiliated with
the Sugar Bowl.

Once the 2006 game is played, attention will turn to the state
of the Superdome.

"It's being decontaminated right now," Paul Hoolahan, the
Sugar Bowl's executive director, said. "Then the engineers can go in and
assess the structural issues."

The Sugar Bowl will likely return to its home state in '07 as
long as New Orleans' infrastructure is back in order. The city
could host the teams, fans and all the periphery events suitably
close to Bourbon Street, while the game itself was played 75 miles
away at LSU's 91,600-seat Tiger Stadium in Baton Rouge.

Bowl officials considered such an arrangement for this season
but didn't think enough hotel rooms would be available. Many have
been taken up by workers trying to restore everyday necessities
such as safe drinking water.

Beyond '07, the Sugar's future is murkier. A campus stadium
won't be a suitable host the following year, when New Orleans is
scheduled to get both the national championship game and another
major bowl under the BCS's new five-bowl arrangement.

At the very least, the Superdome faces a massive renovation --
and no one is certain how to pay for it when so many day-to-day
issues must be resolved first.

"It's a similar situation to many homes in New Orleans,"
Hoolahan said. "They've got to gut everything inside. They've got
to repair the roof. There's a lot of issues."

The BCS could alter its rotation if the Superdome wasn't
repaired by 2008, but more likely would look for a long-term
solution.

"The Dome has to come back," Mark Romig, the Sugar Bowl
president, said. "The city needs a championship-level stadium."

The issue is complicated by the Superdome's main tenant. The
NFL's New Orleans Saints already were talking about the need for a
new stadium to remain financially viable. If the Saints moved on to
a more lucrative market -- Los Angeles, for example -- then it becomes
infinitely tougher to justify spending tens, perhaps hundreds, of
millions of dollars on a 30-year-old stadium for the main purpose
of hosting a once-a-year bowl (though Final Fours, concerts and
conventions could make it more worthwhile).

"I'm not even thinking about that," Romig said. "I've got faith in our state that they will do what's
necessary to get the stadium back up and running."

In the near term, the Sugar Bowl's most daunting task is getting
in touch with thousands of fans who bought tickets for a New
Orleans game. They will be offered refunds and first chance at
purchasing seats in the Georgia Dome. About the first of November,
officials hope to put the remaining tickets on sale.

Hoolahan said Atlanta hotels plan to donate 10 percent of
revenue generated by Sugar Bowl fans to the recovery effort. Also
being discussed: a Mardi Gras-style parade and benefit concert to
raise money for rebuilding New Orleans.

"Our goal is to make this game part of the recovery," Romig
said.

He knows all too well the city's plight. Romig's house was
flooded by 4 feet of water, while the homes of his parents, sister
and brother were destroyed.

Romig said the decision to move the game from Louisiana was
"very emotional," knowing that it could have been a major
economic boon to an area in desperate need of hope. New Orleans'
two professional sports teams -- the Saints and the NBA's Hornets -- have
already moved out of town for the season. Now, the biggest game in
town has followed suit.

City and state officials were kept abreast of the Sugar Bowl's
plans, though it wasn't immediately known how they felt about the
decision. Several messages left with Mayor Ray Nagin and Gov.
Kathleen Blanco were not immediately returned.

"Everyone is disappointed," Romig said, "but I think they're
also understanding."