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The 2014 season saw the NBA All-Star Game take place in New Orleans. Less than a month before the festivities, local beverage maker Smoothie King, realizing the potential for some nationwide exposure during one of the most popular sporting events on the calendar, negotiated the naming rights to the basketball venue and the rather dully dubbed New Orleans Arena was suddenly the Smoothie King Center. This was not the only recent change in New Orleans, as the Hornets became the Pelicans during the off-season, leading to some raised eyebrows in other NBA cities. Well, the brown pelican is the state bird of Louisiana, so the new moniker made sense to the locals, who generally don’t care about the opinions of outsiders much anyway.
There were also some physical changes made to the arena, with the first phase of a $50 million renovation program having been completed in time for the 2013-2014 season. Most of the changes affected the club spaces, but there were also additions of a Party Perch, loge seating, as well as larger locker rooms.
So would a new team name, a new corporate sponsor for the venue, and enhanced seating options change the overall experience in New Orleans? We went there to find out.
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For the average fan, perhaps the most important upgrade made by the Pelicans comes in the area of food and beverage. The hospitality partner, Centerplate, redesigned the menus throughout the arena, focusing on the regional cuisine that makes Louisiana a culinary destination in its own right.
You will immediately notice unique concession stands throughout the two concourses. There are so many that listing them all would likely have you on the next flight to New Orleans, so I'll just mention a few that are particularly special.
First, Triple B's Cajun Corner has three signature items, each for $10: a Jambalaya and Smoked Sausage Link; a Grilled Alligator Sausage Po'boy (with potato chips); Smoked Boudin Sausage Links with Boiled Potatoes. The Creole Crawfish Pie with Corn Maque Choux is only $9. That's just one concession stand!
For those with a hankering for Mac'n'Cheese, try Geaux Mac, which has four choices for toppings: Chicken & Artichoke ($11); Seafood ($11); Beef ($8 - my hearty recommendation); and Three Cheese ($8). Portions are large and will last you much of the half.
Still not satisfied? Then head over to Dixie BBQ, where a pork belly sandwich will set you back $13. Pulled pork and brisket sandwiches are $12, while smoked wings are $10.
If you happen to be traveling with three or more, try the Three Point Grill behind Section 119, where you can pick up three items for just $20, with various specials every game. There is even an Asian Grill and Sushi Bar along the main concourse with fresh rolls.
Of course, hamburgers ($9.75), hot dogs ($5.75), nachos ($7), and pizza are also available here, but with such a rich selection of items that are not found in most pro sports venues, I can't imagine why you'd try something that you can get anywhere else. If you want popcorn, I'd suggest waiting until the third quarter, when it is on sale for half price, although I am not sure if this happens for every game.
When it comes to drinks, you should not be surprised at the options here; after all, New Orleans is a party town. Dozens of stands offer beer, but try the Craft Beer Bar where a premium draft is $8.75, while a single cocktail is $10 (add another $5 to make it a double) and a glass of wine is $9.50. If you prefer to stop at a regular concession, a draft beer is only $6, with a large at $9.50. Sodas are $4.50 for a regular while the souvenir variety is $6.75, and bottled water is $4.
There are also a couple of areas that deserve note. On the 300 level, known as the Entergy Balcony after a local energy corporation, you can find the Whitney Parade Stand near section 323. This is a full-service bar with good views of the floor from a standing area. The Rebound Lounge is another area with cocktail service near section 330, although there are no views of the floor from here. Finally the Capital One Club is available on a per game basis. Normally restricted to club seat holders, any fan can purchase access to the unlimited food served here. Prices vary depending on opponent, but if this interests you, contact the Pelicans sales staff directly.
Overall, the Smoothie King Center is a great venue to find something to eat, and I haven't even mentioned some of the more entertaining concession stand names such as Fowl Line and Whole Hog. You really should come hungry here and try a variety of items if you can. I am certainly envious of Pelicans season ticket holders who can spread out their meals over 41 home games.
The atmosphere here is quite unusual. When the game starts, the arena is very quiet as fans settle in. Music is played during the action, which is typical during NBA games, but which doen't do anything other than drown out what little crowd noise there is. Timeouts have your usual shooting games or cheerleader performances, but nothing unusual.
But, as the game moves on, the crowd's energy increases by the minute. After halftime, there's tension building, especially when the game is close and exciting with several lead changes. By the fourth quarter, the fans, the announcer, and the music act in unison and it is a great finish, especially when the Pelicans come out victorious. It felt like the fans switch on at halftime.
In the end, I think this might be what a basketball atmosphere should be like. There is no reason to get crazy when the score is 6-6, let things unfold and act accordingly. I think these fans have it right - get there, enjoy your food, sit back and wait until it is appropriate to make some real noise.
New Orleans. Bourbon Street. Walking distance. Do I need to say more? If I were to recommend a bar nearby, it would have to be Walk-On's Bistreaux & Bar, which won ESPN's best sports bar in 2012. Some tables have their own taps, while there are TVs everywhere to keep you up-to-date on the happenings of the sports world. Just a few blocks from the arena, it makes a great stopping point before or after the game, before you go and get real crazy in the French Quarter.
Fans are not that enthusiastic despite having a young and interesting team led by Anthony Davis. The upper deck is pretty much empty and many of the cheers such as "D-Fense" and "Let's Go Pels" are routinely ignored until the very end of the game. The fans have embraced the new team nickname and there are plenty of Pelicans jerseys worn around the arena. This is a team with a future and I expect the fan base to respond accordingly in the next couple of years.
Smoothie King Center is right downtown, just south of the bend in I-10. If you drive, expect some rush hour traffic. There is parking at the Superdome lots, which are right next door. At $15, it is not overpriced, and streets are managed after the game to allow cars to reach the highway as quickly as possible. Street parking is available nearby, but it is not easy to find, especially if you are not familiar with the area.
Getting here on transit is probably a better option, especially if you are staying in the city. The arena is just a few blocks from Canal Street, along which one of the trolleys runs.
As you walk towards the arena along Girod Street, you will first reach an outdoor Pelican Fest with games and cheerleader autograph sessions as well as a live band. This sort of outdoor party is common at NFL games but I've never seen it at an NBA venue and it really works well. The big advantage is that you pass through security before entering this area, and as many fans come late, there is no waiting or bottleneck.
Inside the arena, there is no problem traversing the concourses, which are spacious enough for the smaller crowd. Ushers will check your ticket in the lower bowl, but upstairs you can pretty much sit anywhere you want.
Afterwards, it is a short walk back to Canal Street along with the other fans; again the routes are managed by the police to allow cars to exit in a timely manner, so follow the signals and you will have no problems.
The box office is located just inside the northwest corner of the venue, within the confines of Pelican Fest. The cheapest ticket is $12 for the last row in the upper deck behind the net, although this price corresponds to the top 10 rows or so. The view is actually pretty good from here and you will likely have the whole area to yourself. Lower bowl tickets can be found for as little as $53 outside the club sections between the baskets.
There are also interesting specials that can be found on the team's official site. For example, the Guys Night Out package includes two tickets, two beers, and two pint glasses plus a photo with 2 Pelicans dancers starting at $54. A Friends and Family pack consists of four tickets, hot dogs, chips, and Pepsis for as low as $99, although this means you won't get to enjoy as much of the specialty eats here, so keep that in mind.
The scoreboard is very nice, with two separate levels: four video screens below that show live action and replays, and eight sides above, four with the actual score and four that show game statistics, out-of-town scores, and those occasional cheers that are mostly ignored.
Given how good the food is here and that the team is above .500 at home, this is a surprisingly fun spot to watch the NBA. New Orleans may be a football town, but the Pelicans are doing good things now and I look for this to be one of the top basketball destinations in the near future.
The pregame Pelican Fest gets a point here, as does the re-introduction of Pierre the Pelican. If you are not familiar with the story, the original Pierre was so frightening that he left the kids of Crescent City in tears, even when the team managed a win. After much mockery, the Pelicans finally decided to do something about Pierre in time for the All-Star Game. A press release was issued informing all that Pierre had been injured in a pick-up game involving some other mascots. His beak was severely injured and required surgery. After Pierre recuperated, his new beak was revealed in a video and the new mascot was far less terrifying. The entire story is summarized here and kudos to the club for seeing the humor in what was a poor design.
A final point for the majestic Superdome rising next door.
Overall, Smoothie King Center is definitely better than the average NBA arena, mainly because of the wonderful food choices. When the Pelicans return to prominence, the fans should again come over in full force and then it will become one of the top venues in the league. In the meantime, you should get on down to Louisiana for a game soon and check out the Smoothie King Center while it is still a great value.
The New Orleans Arena seats up to 18,000 depending on the event. Regardless of the type and nature of the event, there are no seats that should be considered as "bad" seats. The sight lines are excellent, regardless of where you sit. The primary differences between the most expensive and least expensive seats are your proximity to the action in the event and the amount of leg and hip room in the seat. The New Orleans Arena provides a first-class experience and is definitely worthy of a visit. If only the team was better. Maybe next year.
The New Orleans Arena was opened in October of 1999 adjacent to the Superdome in the Central Business District (CBD) of New Orleans. Though the arena was built as a multi-purpose facility capable of hosting the many various events from sporting to entertainment that frequent the New Orleans area, there’s little doubt that the venue’s sole purpose of construction was to entice the NBA to locate (or relocate) a franchise there. New Orleans had been without basketball since the Jazz left the city and their home venue of the Superdome after only five years in 1979 for Utah. Though the arena would open in 1999 as host to minor league hockey featuring the now defunct New Orleans Brass of the ECHL, the city and venue would secure the relocation of the Charlotte Hornets in 2002.
With the Jazz heading to Utah, New Orleans lost a nickname which identified closely with the city and region and Utah gained a name which didn’t fit at all. Brand development often creates these strange nickname-city misfits when franchises relocate. A leading reason for the fan-support struggle is thought to be that the nickname “Hornets” just doesn’t fit in with the New Orleans culture and will always feel like Charlotte’s team is temporarily in town. For that reason, it was announced in 2013 that the Hornets would be renamed as the Pelicans.
Regardless of the name, New Orleans’ NBA franchise will continue to call the decade-old and counting New Orleans Arena home. The arena’s construction cost about $114 million and developed a facility which sits atop 17,000 square feet and 70 feet tall. For NBA games, the listed capacity is approximately 18,500.
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