Not All Fun & Games

Greater New Orleans Sports Foundation CEO Jay Cicero talks about the multibillion-dollar impact the organization has had in the state and region and why the next five years, leading up to New Orleans’ 11th time as Super Bowl host city, will bring some of the biggest challenges GNOSF has faced in its 30 years.
Portraits by Greg Miles
Biggest life lesson learned? In 2003, after losing a bid to host the NCAA Men’s Final Four (three months after successfully hosting). You can’t take it for granted that major events will come to New Orleans because we have the French Quarter, the Superdome, walking distance hotels and the best food on the planet. The competition had become fierce. Therefore, we re-dedicated ourselves to creative and aggressive bids that put everything financially feasible on the table. We may be disappointed by the outcome of losing a bid (including two Super Bowl bids), but we can take pride in knowing we did everything possible to put the state and city in position to win.


In its 30-year history, the Greater New Orleans Sports Foundation (GNOSF) has brought hundreds of events to the city and turned a $40 million public investment into an estimated economic impact of over $3 billion.

A nonprofit organization that bids on and manages sporting events designed to bring economic impact and positive media exposure to the state and the city, GNOSF serves as the lead organization with the NBA, the NFL, the NCAA, SEC, and other national governing bodies or owners of events to evaluate events that are up for bid.

The Super Bowl, College Football National Championship, Final Four, All-Star Game, Wrestlemania, Junior Olympic Games, Bassmaster Classic and Olympic trial events — GNOSF is responsible for drawing them all to the city and making sure they are successful.

Over the next five years, the city will play host to the 2020 College Football Playoff National Championship, 2020 Women’s Final Four, 2022 Men’s Final Four and the 2024 NFL Super Bowl. By then it will have raised $100 million in private fundraising in support of the major events hosted. This private fundraising, combined with a projected $50 million in public fund investment, will have created over $3.44 billion economic impact for the state of Louisiana and Greater New Orleans.

Recently, Jay Cicero, the organization’s president and CEO sat down with Biz New Orleans to discuss GNOSF’s impact and the excitement it brings to the Big Easy.

How does GNOSF identify and bring a big event to New Orleans?

We use all of our collective experience, creativity and resources to put together a business plan for that event, and then make the actual in-person bids with our sports community partners – the Saints, the Pelicans, Tulane, SMG, UNO and others. If the bids are successful, the Sports Foundation signs a contract with the event owners that obligates us to create a host community and raise the funds necessary to pay for everything that was committed to. The foundation staff then serves as the day-to-day staff for each of the major events.

What was the first event the Sports Foundation brought to New Orleans?

The 1992 U.S. Olympic Track and Field Trials. It was awarded in December 1990. We only had 18 months to completely renovate Tad Gormley Stadium, create a host committee, hire a staff, raise funds and successfully host the event. It was a pretty daunting task for us, but what that event did show was the potential of the organization, and it gave us the confidence that we could actually do this, do it well, and, hopefully, be a leader in the industry.

What goes into preparing for the marquee sporting events? 

Well, it’s a lot more than people understand or know. Preparing for those events is as important as executing them. It’s a lot of planning, fundraising and operational execution. A business plan has to be presented to these organizations, and they vote on whether or not they believe in it. Certainly having hosted these events in the past helps with the understanding and the trust level that is created between our organization and our partners here in the city and the event owner, whether that be the NBA, the NFL or NCAA.

While the GNOSF does use public money, you also rely on private funding. How do you raise those funds and what types of businesses do you try to recruit to give to the foundation?

We have annual corporate sponsorships, like we have with Chevron and Hancock Whitney Bank, as well as a growing membership program – about 400 to 500 members – that includes a broad range of individuals, small businesses, hotels and major corporations. We want to grow that over the next five years with this incredible lineup of events. It’s not going to get less expensive for us to operate, so private fundraising is certainly something that is very important to us.

The city was awarded its record-tying 11th Super Bowl in 2024. What does an event of that magnitude mean for the city and state?

It’s huge for the state and the city. There is simply no event like the Super Bowl for New Orleans: It is by far the largest and the most challenging event to host. It also comes with a larger reward for the state and the city in regard to economic impact and immediate exposure. In 2013, the Super Bowl in New Orleans generated about $480 million in economic impact and brought over 5,200 credentialed members of the media here for seven or eight days. That positive media exposure from media being here that entire week may be worth more than the $480 million in economic impact. But, 11 years later, in 2024, it will be even larger. It’s the epitome of all sporting events. It has the most focus, the most media attention, and, certainly, the biggest economic impact.

Gayle Benson led the bidding for Super Bowl LVIII.  What was it like to work with her?

We really had the honor of working with Mrs. Benson and Mr. Benson, when he was still alive, Dennis Lauscha and Ben Hales on all aspects of that bid. In leading the final pitch to the owners, Mrs. Benson really brought the Super Bowl back where it belongs. She was incredible. She actually practiced like Drew Brees to make it perfect. It was really admirable. She’s really as genuine as she seems and a pleasure to work with. We love partnering with the Saints and the Pelicans to bid on events.

Now that the NFL doesn’t restrict the draft to New York, is there or has there been any discussion of trying to get New Orleans to host the event?

The NFL Draft falls on the same weekend as Jazz Fest and the Zurich Classic. We really simply don’t have the space for it. We have to have hotel rooms available. We have to have venues available. We have to have the ability to raise the funds necessary. We really have never even evaluated it because we’ve never had the opportunity to even think about hosting it, but that would be intriguing. If the NFL ever changes dates, we’ll put in a bid.

How do the Super Bowl and the College Football Playoff National Championship compare in regard to benefiting the area?

The early estimates for the College Football Championship game are in the $250 million economic impact range where the Super Bowl was $480 million. If you take a look at the specifics of the people who come for each event, you can understand the difference. For the College Championship, the majority of people coming in have a relationship with one of the two teams, whereas with the Super Bowl, the majority of the people who come are a corporate crowd that travels to the game no matter who’s playing or where it is. It’s a very high-spending event with people entertaining their top clients or their board of directors as part of their business operation. The Super Bowl, at $480 million, is a gigantic number, but $250 million is still fantastic. We’ll learn a lot by hosting the College Football National Championship game, and hopefully we’ll be in a position to bid on that again.

What are some of the added benefits for the city/state provided by media coverage of big sporting events, especially multiple-day events like Final Fours?

Media coverage is something that we used to really not pay attention to as much, but it has become nearly as important as the economic impact. It’s several days of almost nonstop coverage and positive information about our city. That is invaluable.

Social media has made it more so. Exposure associated with an event like Wrestlemania is through the roof. The Rock has maybe 100 million followers who are seeing his posts about New Orleans. How valuable is that?

It’s something that, maybe, you didn’t account for five years ago, but now it is one of the main aspects of why we attract an event like Wrestlemania. The social media exposure and the ability to promote something positive about New Orleans and Louisiana is very high.

For many, WWE’s Wrestlemania might not seem like a significant event, but it has been very successful in two recent trips to New Orleans. What has professional wrestling’s biggest annual event meant for the region?

The first time we hosted it, it shocked me how many people actually attended the event. In 2014, we had people from all 50 states and 34 countries. In 2018, it was even bigger, with all 50 states and, I believe, 64 or 65 countries. The economic impact rose from $143 million in 2014 to $175 million in 2018. It takes a lot to get the event, but it has a big payoff in the long run, too.

Is another NBA All-Star Game on the horizon?

We hosted an unprecedented three NBA All-Star Games in nine years, so we kind of feel like the NBA All-Star Game is always on our horizon. It’s not a matter of if, it’s just a matter of when. It’s currently not on calendar, but that relationship is so strong that it really makes it easy to say we’re going to target 2023, or something like that, if that becomes available.

The Sports Foundation was responsible for launching the New Orleans Bowl. Can you describe how it has become part of the city’s special event landscape and what it has brought to the region?

When the Sports Foundation started in 1988, we wanted an annual event that was significant and had national exposure for the state and city. It wasn’t until 2001 that we were able to add it to our calendar. It represents $20 million in economic impact annually. R+L Carriers is our title sponsor. ESPN is the national broadcast partner. The Sports Foundation serves as the staff of the host committee. We’re able to use our resources and knowledge we’ve gained from hosting other events and apply it to the New Orleans Bowl.

Big, season-opening matchups have become the trend in recent years in college football. Is there any talk of establishing an annual game in New Orleans?

We worked with UL (University of Louisiana at Lafayette) and SMG to move UL’s 2019 home game versus Mississippi State to the Dome next Labor Day weekend. But currently, there’s no plans for a consistent, annual game to be held. However, I know the Sugar Bowl has been working on an SEC/ACC matchup for 2022. Bringing two large, major conference foes to New Orleans for a neutral site game would require a significant financial investment, and in the evaluation of that financial investment versus the return on that investment, it’s something we’ll all be looking at.

While professional and collegiate events garner the most attention, the Sports Foundation is also involved in recruiting amateur events to the region, too. How important are they to the organization’s mission?

Like I said before, our first major event was an amateur sporting event, the Olympic Track and Field Trials back in 1992. Our objective is to book the larger events, Super Bowls, Men’s Final Fours, Women’s Final Fours, Wrestlemanias, and book them out as far out as we possibly can and then fill in between with quality midsize professional and amateur events. In March, we’ll have the 2019 SEC Gymnastics Championships. With LSU performing in the Top 5 in the country the last five years, we’re expecting a nice turnout for that. Amateur events are very important, because you can’t host the Super Bowl or the Final Four every year.

How does it feel to look back at the growth and importance of the Sports Foundation over 30 years?

It’s gratifying to think about how we are successfully carrying out the mission established 30 years ago and humbling to realize that over the next five years of major events ending with the Super Bowl in 2024 we’ll have some of the biggest challenges we’ve ever faced. It’s been an honor to learn from and serve with some really great board members who are incredibly talented community leaders.

Best advice ever received? Knowing when to keep your mouth shut is as essential as knowing when to say something important, so know and read your audience. This came from one of the founders of the GNOSF, the late Ron Gardner.

What are you most looking forward to in the next year? Working with the Sugar Bowl leading up to hosting the 2020 College Football Championship Game in January; working with Tulane, UNO and the Sugar Bowl on preparations to host the 2020 NCAA Women’s Final Four next April; putting the finishing touches on the Sports Foundation’s business plan leading up to hosting the 2024 Super Bowl; and potentially announcing a new major event coming to the state and city.

Favorite book?

“Ego is the Enemy” by Ryan Holiday

Favorite TV Show?

Showtime’s “Inside the NFL”

Who do you look up to?

NBA Commissioner Adam Silver



Daily habits?

Reading industry stories; the Dan Patrick Show; praying for my family; reviewing strategy, goals and budget numbers; listening to music and comedy.  

Pet peeve?

Not returning phone calls or emails.