NEW ORLEANS (AP) - There's jazz and jambalaya. Then there's football and Final Fours.
On the heels of the NFL's decision to award New Orleans the 2013 Super Bowl, tourism and economic development officials credited the sports industry - as much as the city's world-renowned music and
fine dining - with leading the economic and psychological recovery from Hurricane Katrina.
"This city, right now, is probably the single-best example of the power of sports as a corporate enterprise to actually go outside the boundaries of its own sector," said Stephen Perry, president of the New Orleans Metropolitan Convention and Visitors' Bureau.
"Sports, in our recovery, may have been the single key element, because the highest-profile national events have either come here or committed here" since the storm hit in August 2005, Perry continued. "They've re-established us as a pre-eminent special-events city."
Perry estimated that approximately $2 billion in spending in the metro area will have been generated directly by sporting events by the time the 2013 Super Bowl - with its $350 million contribution to the local economy - has been played. That span will have included seven Sugar Bowls, two BCS national championship football games, an NBA All-Star game and an NCAA men's basketball Final Four.
What may go down as one of the more important moments in the history of this nearly 300-year-old city was when state officials approved an unprecedented stadium rehabilitation plan for the Louisiana Superdome, which was heavily damaged during Katrina.
The NFL helped spur the decision by asking whether the dome could be fixed in time to host the Saints during the 2006 season.
Doug Thornton, a senior vice president for SMG, the company that manages the state-owned stadium, got together with contractors and consultants, and decided it was possible to renovate the dome - at
least enough to safely host football - in little more than eight months.
Then-Gov. Kathleen Blanco designated Superdome repairs a fast-track priority, and quickly appropriated state money that brought matches from the federal government, and round-the-clock work began.
The initial repairs and renovations left some areas such as luxury suites unfinished - no carpeting, countertops or cabinets. Still, it was cleaned up and ready for a sellout crowd of more than 70,000 by the time the Saints took the field against Atlanta for the dome's emotionally charged, nationally televised reopening on Monday night, Sept. 25, 2006.
"To have lost the Superdome would have been a death blow," Perry said. "You've seen around the country the development of new sports facilities lead to a lot of downtown revitalization. But here, it transcended that in a way that ended up being incredibly positive for the brand of the National Football League, and for the industry of sport in general."
The nationally televised Bayou Classic between Grambling and Southern, played in Houston in 2005, also returned to the dome, as did the New Orleans Bowl (which had to be played in Lafayette in 2005) and the Sugar Bowl (played one year in Atlanta). Tulane's football team, which played every 2005 home game outside New Orleans, returned to the dome as well.
The BCS national championship game came to the Superdome the following year. Meanwhile, the Hornets returned full time to the New Orleans Arena next door, and brought the 2008 NBA All-Star game
Since then, the NCAA has awarded the 2012 men's basketball Final Four to New Orleans.
Fred Sawyers, general manager of the Hilton hotel on the city's river front, said each major sporting event brought with it major increases in tips and overtime for hotel and restaurant employees, much like large conventions do.
But unlike conventions, the fact that many of these events were part of the national sports scene provided an added benefit similar to advertising.
Each time one of those events take place in New Orleans, broadcasts are filled with shots of music in the French Quarter or chefs cooking in the city's best-known restaurants.
Officials at the convention and visitor's bureau say they see a significant spike in calls from planners of events, business meetings and conventions after each nationally televised sporting event in New Orleans.
The 2013 Super Bowl in particular, Perry said, will demonstrate the extent of the city's recovery to both event planners and tourists.
"Because it's seen by a billion viewers in 250 countries, it brings the New Orleans brand across the planet in a way we could never purchase," Perry said.
Meanwhile, the steady flow of major sports events since late 2006 has given hotel managers the ammunition they need to seek investments in not just repairs but upgrades to their buildings.
At the more than 1,600-room Hilton, Sawyers said, "We just completed room renovations of 450 rooms. Now we want to do other rooms.
"It helps my case when I say I've got the Final Four in 2012 and the Super Bowl in 2013," he continued. "It says this hotel is going to continue to be viable, New Orleans is going to continue to host big events."