Dick Van Dyke stands at the bar in Brennan's, where the bartender is telling him that his Coca-Cola is on the house. In town to film a Perry Como TV special—with lots of backing from the New Orleans city government—the impish Van Dyke asks, "Oh, is this one on the taxpayers?" No, but here's one that is—the Louisiana Superdome, currently topping the charts with an operating budget (including debt service on the huge bond issue) of $58,000 each and every day. Make that a double Coke.
Better make it a triple, with a double shot of red ink on the side. For a while last week it seemed possible that the Dome might collapse, fiscally speaking, for want of something like $4.3 million needed to keep it operating after Feb. 29. It didn't happen for a lot of reasons, including civic and state pride, political considerations and the dismal fact that even shut down tight the Dome would still cost the taxpayers $29,000 a day in interest and principal payments on its bonds. Getting close to the wire, Louisiana Governor Edwin Edwards performed a bit of sleight of hand, transferring the $4.3 million from the Dome's bond repayment fund to its operating fund. That fixed things for the moment. Next year, if nothing goes seriously wrong, the governor will only have to make up an expected $15 million deficit.
The Dome was conceived 10 years ago and financed in a political atmosphere as spicy as Louisiana hot sauce, and having survived 22 lawsuits and two grand jury investigations, the administration of this wonder structure is in the process of being shaken up. The $173-million complex has had a slew of things go wrong with it besides finances, and the governor has hired a Massachusetts consulting firm to make a thorough investigation of its operations, including those of flamboyant and outspoken Ben Levy, the Dome's executive director.
In effect, Edwards is wresting control of the operation away from Levy and his political patron, Moon Landrieu, the mayor of New Orleans and head of the Louisiana Stadium and Exposition District Commission, the board that controls the entire Superdome package.
March 15, 1976
After the first quarter of operation returned a mere $543.35 it became clear that bookings would be the major stumbling block for whoever runs the show.
"The problem is a huge one," says Edwards. "We must make every effort to fill the facility on as many days as possible." Nearly all politicians and administrators call the Superdome a "facility," as if to hold the reality of its size and scope at verbal arm's length. Estimates vary, but it seems that to approach breaking even the Superdome must have something happening on its main arena floor at least 200 days a year. The rate now is about 140 days a year. Pro football (the Saints), pro basketball (the Jazz), college basketball (Tulane and the University of New Orleans), plus a few exhibition baseball games scheduled for this spring add up to no more than 50% of the necessary total. That is about as much as sports can contribute at present. The rest will have to come from trade shows, concerts, spectaculars and such extravaganzas as ice shows and the circus.
The Dome's technical glitches can probably be fixed eventually, but the financial strain is likely to go on. Over and over the governor points out that the Dome was not meant to make a profit. "It won't make money in our lifetime or our children's," is the way he puts it.
But let us forget dismal economics and view the "facility" as it stands today.
"Critics said that seagulls would eat the polyurethane roof, that the pilings would give way, that the TV screens wouldn't work and that the movable stands wouldn't move," says Levy, "but none of that came true. Sure we have problems. You have problems when you buy a new home, don't you? And we're not exactly talking about a two-bedroom house here."
The Dome is uncompromisingly contemporary in style. The interior resembles a Holiday Inn motel room blown up to fantastic proportions. When you put 97,000 people in a big motel room, you've got lots of fun. And trouble.
Fun for Superdome sports fans begins at the ticket windows. The windows have a slit at the bottom for the exchange of money and tickets but no hole for talking through. When general admission seats go on sale, the area around the windows is so crowded and noisy that the people inside the booths can't hear the fans' requests. So everybody has to bend down, yelling back and forth through the slit at the bottom. The solution? Since the special tinted glass would shatter if speaking holes were cut into it, all the windows must be replaced. $13,000. Have another Coke, Dick.
Ticket in hand, the fan moves inside to discover that getting to his seat on one of the Dome's five color-coded levels can be a game in itself. The Dome's immense shell is laced with innumerable ramp ways, walkways, escalators and elevators. The ramp ways—spiraling, wide inclines done up in zingy striped carpeting—sometimes lead to cul-de-sacs. And if a spectator leaves his seat to visit one of the Dome's 88 bathrooms, it's possible for him to find that he has walked a half-mile around the perimeter at his level and passed his starting point without recognizing it. It is a trip that may have to be taken, however, for this year's big seller in the Dome is a 40-ounce $2.25 cup of Superbeer—3½ cans' worth.
Pete Maravich of the New Orleans Jazz is still awed by the building's size. "The first day, somebody led me from the parking lot to the dressing room," he says, "and I've been using that route since. I'd be afraid to try another way, I might not make it until halftime." But the Pistol, who recently scored his 10,000th NBA point in the Dome, is ecstatic. "There couldn't be a better place to play basketball on this planet," he says. "There's not even a crosswind, like you have to fight in the Astrodome."
Dick Gordon, executive vice-president of the New Orleans Saints, says, "The Superdome is the greatest thing since peanut butter. But it's big. We had dress rehearsals. Even then there'd be guys showing up at wrong entrances or getting trapped in wrong parking lots."
Having found his way to his seat and bought himself a Superbeer, the fan can turn his attention to the Dome's highly touted TV screen and scoreboard system, both of which have been giving everyone headaches. The four scoreboards have failed with regularity at Jazz games. At a Tulane game once, the clocks counted time backward, finally fizzling to a stop when they read 87 minutes. Says Butch van Breda Kolff, the Jazz coach, "The New Orleans school system isn't the world's greatest, but our fans all know at least one big word—'malfunction.' "
It is the TV system that has drawn the heaviest criticism. The setup has the capability of projecting live television, instant replays or film on six 22-by-25-foot screens suspended on a huge gondola from the ceiling of the Dome. During pro football games the screens were used for instant replay, and the Dome sold advertising spots to put on when nothing was being instantly replayed. The results were much like what happens in one's own living room: the commercials came on so loudly that the fans were disturbed, as were officials and players. There was Archie Manning, asking for quiet from a local restaurant-chain commercial.
Estimates of the number of fans who can't see the TV screens vary from 4,000 to 8,000. Because of overhanging upper levels, fans sitting toward the back of the higher-priced seats in the lower levels were out of luck. The screens were dropped from 100 feet above the field to 90. Then Oakland's Ray Guy hit the gondola with a punt during the Pro Bowl game, giving all the I-told-you-so, it'll-never-fly folks their best moment. And if the Dome ever secures a baseball franchise, just how long will it take Reggie Jackson to put a high long one through the screens? For football, at least, they now have a ground rule: if you hit the TV apparatus, you kick over.
Each sport makes its own rules about how the Dome's TV is to be used. The NFL decided that it would not allow simulcasts of games on the theory that they would interrupt both fans' and players' concentration. That was a loss to the thousands who jam the inexpensive upper terrace-level seats. Sitting somewhere between nine and 13 stories above the playing field, they had expected the big TV set to serve as a closeup alternative.
The NFL has also decided to censor what may be shown on replays. A Saints official sits in the broadcast room, busily eliminating sequences that contain questionable official calls. "We're worried about the officials' safety," says Dick Gordon. For college football the NCAA, more concerned with image than concentration, banned the showing of any replays at all, but does allow simulcasting. The Jazz make no use of the system, because it's too expensive.
If large numbers of fans cannot see the TV, neither can the folks who sit in the 64 box suites, which were put up for average bids of $35,000 a year plus $4,000 in ticket costs. And they can't see the scoreboards, either. Closed-circuit TV to each box is a partial solution. The suites, named after Louisiana parishes, are not exactly plush. The New Orleans Jazz suite—St. John the Baptist—is typical, decorated in functional imitation suede, indoor-outdoor carpeting and white Formica. In general the suites resemble the offices of 64 successful and very hip chiropodists, which, price aside, may be why only about half of them have been sold.
But after a second Superbeer, one can reflect on some positive aspects of the place. The Dome holds the NBA record for attendance, 26,511 paying customers having watched the Jazz play Los Angeles last November. The basketball court is set up in one corner of the immense floor, and viewing a game from the upper reaches is like watching 10 men play cards at a small table at the far end of a 747 hangar. But moveable stands from one side of the Dome are wheeled forward to successfully flank the court, leaving enough room for a track meet and a hockey game behind them.
Frank Fry, who heads up Ogden Food's service in the Dome, is proud of the record he is setting. "We did $1.90 per fan during the football season, which is twice the national average," he says. "And at an Allman Brothers concert, with 58,000 people, we sold 1,200 kegs of beer—cleaned out every distributor in New Orleans." Time for a superbelch.
Security, which for a while was a worry, is getting better. Former state police Lieut. John Rigol, who is now responsible for security, says, "The problem isn't the building. It's people. Too many folks around here use the size of the building as an excuse for bad management and improper procedures. I think we're on the way to solving it." In its early days the Dome had fewer muggings than old Tulane Stadium across town, but vandalism was a problem. "They left all the fire hoses, extinguishers, temperature controls and light switches out in the open," says Bud Johnson, Jazz P.R. man. "I was sitting in my office one day, and water gushed through the ceiling. A fan had turned on a fire hose overhead." (On the other hand, there is still no overall plan for evacuating the crowd in the event of a large fire in the Dome.)
Up in the hard-drinking, hard-hitting terrace seats, which now go for a bargain $1.50 for a Jazz game, the fans have become so unruly that the installation of a "spit barrier" has been seriously considered to stop the assault on the folks in lower levels. Probable cost: $60,000.
In an effort to involve the city's black community, Mayor Landrieu appointed Sherman Copelin, a local black leader, to head Superdome Services, Inc., a corporation that would provide housekeeping, ticket sellers, security and ushers for the Dome. Ill-managed at first, the SSI staff persistently ignored the advice of its own subcontractors. It left the Dome dirty after some events and did not hire ushers until it was too late to orientate them, so that on opening day the Dome was a sea of lost patrons and staff wandering the seemingly endless corridors. But the SSI situation also seems to be improving.
The Superdome, which is owned and operated by the State of Louisiana, has some dissatisfied tenants, too. Says the quick-minded vice-president of the Jazz, Barry Mendelson, "They're just like my landlord at home. They want their percentage without working for it. We have bad communication with the Dome commission, mostly because, like any government agency, it can never figure out who's responsible for what. Between the various taxes, the Dome and the league, almost 20% of each ticket price comes right off the top. We get no piece of concessions, souvenirs, programs, parking or anything else. It's still the greatest facility in the world, but it needs to be intelligently run. I favor a private corporation to do it."
And Dick Gordon of the Saints says, "The Superdome is a compromise. They have to be able to convert from football to basketball to baseball to concerts and trade shows. When you feed in all those factors, you can't come out with a seating arrangement that is perfect for any one sport. I don't think they will ever build a place like this again. Separate stadia are the answer for sports, and they're cheaper."
"But I understand the problems of a place of this magnitude," adds Gordon, who as a former astronaut went to the moon in 1969. "Apollo wasn't perfect, either."
Whether the Dome can weather its superproblems and become the true building of the future for professional sports remains to be seen. As one stands in the smallish locker rooms—all olive drab and steel furniture, resembling an army delousing station—one understands how much remains to be done. It is hard to avoid shuddering when Moon Landrieu declares he'd do it all over again. "History, I'm sure, will prove me right," says the mayor.