By Jaime Aron
The College Football Playoff is kicking off its sixth championship weekend with a schedule of events that’s become quite established: a fan festival, the circus atmosphere of media day, concerts, a 5K, a culinary showcase, an enormous game-day tailgate, all leading up to the title game.
This year’s unique element? The setting.
With all due respect to previous and future host cities, there’s just something different about big-time events when they’re held in the city nicknamed The Big Easy.
“We feel what every visitor to New Orleans has felt for generation, which is hospitality, history, food, music – all that goes into the gumbo of New Orleans,” said Bill Hancock, executive director of the CFP. “And we’re proud to have our guests feel it when they get here.”
The CFP has worked closely with the host committee, led by Jeff Hundley, who is also in charge of the Sugar Bowl. For two years, his team and a swath of volunteers have taken the CFP formula and put their own local flavorings on it.
“We’ve got a culture here in New Orleans that’s unlike anywhere else,” Hundley said. “It’s a fun, laid-back, anything-goes kind of environment. But we’re very professional when it comes to major events, because hosting major events is kind of the lifeblood of this city.”
The French Quarter is always the hub of local activity, and that’s certainly the case this weekend. The concerts of AT&T Playoff Playlist Live are at Woldenberg Park on Saturday and Sunday, with the Allstate Championship Tailgate Plaza covering the park and the Jax Brewery Lot from Saturday through Monday.
Going south along the Mississippi River, the Fillmore New Orleans is the site of the Extra Yard for Teachers Summit on Saturday, Playoff Fan Central is at the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center from Saturday through Monday, and the Eckrich Taste of the Championship presented by Thrillist is at Mardi Gras World on Sunday night. On Sunday morning, the Extra Yard 5K will start and end in Lafayette Square, with a route that covers the French Quarter.
“I heard the mayor liken this to Mardi Gras,” Hundley said. “It’s fun, it’s festive and there’s so much that people can do. That’s a credit to the CFP and the way they built this championship. We’re happy to be a part of it, and happy to put our own little twist on it at the same time.”
Then he laughed and added, “Beads will be part of it, too. Visitors will see those everywhere.”
Tim McGraw is among the headliners performing on the concert stage, with his show coming during the pregame tailgate. Louisiana native Lauren Daigle will sing the national anthem before kickoff.
“So we’ve got a lot to be proud of with what we’re showcasing here this weekend,” Hundley said.
LSU already has canceled classes for Monday and Tuesday, making it even more likely their fans will be able to soak it all in.
“It’s different than other game we host when LSU comes because they come big and they have a lot of fun in the process,” Hundley said. “And people join right in with them and have fun. I think it’ll be a really special big environment.”
Hancock noted that each of the previous hosts – the Dallas-Fort Worth area, the Phoenix area, Tampa, Atlanta and the Bay Area – put a local stamp on the game. He’s excited to see what’s ahead for the next four hosts: Miami, Indianapolis, Los Angeles and Houston.
“The first 10 years, 10 different cities,” Hancock said, smiling. “We’re proud of that. That says a lot of things about this event that everybody wants to host it.”