A final ode to New Orleans before the VooDoo are put in the graveyard
The Orlando Predators have always been my team of choice in the Arena Football League, but the New Orleans VooDoo have always held a special place in my heart. I love the Crescent City. The food is phenomenal. The people there are always fantastic. And at least while Tom Benson owned the team, the Graveyard was one of the most hopping places in the AFL.
After tonight, the city of New Orleans is still going to be awesome, and the people will still go about their daily lives. But to me, a piece of this city is very likely dying after tonight.
The New Orleans VooDoo are likely to be no more.
Oh sure, we don't certainly know that tonight is going to be the final time the VooDoo ever play a game in New Orleans, but reading all of the tea leaves suggests just that. For my money, it would take a bigger upset than Spokane beating Arizona to keep the VooDoo in the Bayou next season.
I recall 2007, when the Austin Wranglers knew that Doug MacGregor was folding the team at the end of the campaign. The Wranglers were in the playoffs in 2006 in their one and only appearance, but aside from that, they were never really all that good in their history. Their worst year was their final one, a 4-12 campaign which saw them finish with the worst record in the National Conference.
The fans in Austin were fantastic though, showing up to the Frank Erwin Center in droves, topping out in that last year at 14,408 fans in their home finale. The Wranglers were beaten that day 81-64, but the fans partied deep into the night with their team after the players and coaches emerged from the arena, almost in thanks for all of the memories from the last four seasons even though the club only registered a 28-37 overall record in that time.
Sure, MacGregor put the Wranglers in the af2 in 2008, but clearly, the fans weren't as impressed with less of a product and averaged just 3,458 fans per game. The true diehards were the ones who showed up, and they were probably just as torn when their af2 team was folded after '08 as they were when their AFL club was taken away the year prior.
So perhaps we shouldn't be surprised that this is how the story is going to end in New Orleans as well. The VooDoo were around and strong until the '09 collapse of the league, and when they came back, the product was less, so the fans didn't show up as much.
That really just simplifies things, though. There were clearly other significantly bigger issues, too. No disrespect intended to Dan Newman, but he just doesn't have the deep pockets or the pull in New Orleans that former owner Tom Benson did, nor will he ever have even a fraction of the power that the Saints and Pelicans owner has. It's tough to carve out a sports niche in a city like New Orleans, especially if your name isn't Tom Benson.
But that doesn't make it hurt any less when that team is gone.
The VooDoo averaged just 3,839 fans in attendance per game this season, a number which we all darn well know was inflated beyond belief. But for the couple thousand fans per game who showed up to the Smoothie King Center game in and game out, many of which are regulars on this very website, they will hurt all the same when Saturday night is said and done with.
And it's not that the team is losing that really bothers those really diehard VooDoo fans. It's that the team stopped trying.
No, this is not a slight on any of the staff members the VooDoo currently have. I know Brandon Rizzuto, Hayley Asaro and Chip Merritt personally, and those three might be the hardest working trio in the AFL. But the fact that they were the only ones running an entire football team this year is disgraceful. The fans knew it, and they were right to be outraged.
But they were only outraged because they really cared. Dammit, did they care. They wanted to see a winner. They wanted the Graveyard to be packed on a game in, game out basis. They wanted to be loud and proud in their city, and they wanted to make the VooDoo the premier summer attraction in the Crescent City.
Part of the beauty of the Arena Football League is that the fans can get close to the action. They get to know the players and coaches, all of whom are just normal people in the community when they're not strapping on their pads and cleats.
The VooDoo have super fans who have traveled all over the country to see this team play. Every single season, you see guys like "PopeClown" and "Witch Doctor" in various venues donning their costumes. They come with dozens of others as well, effectively making the VooDoo one of the best traveling fan bases in the AFL nowadays. I'd estimate that over 200 made the trip from New Orleans to Orlando for the last game of the year, knowing that the VooDoo would have made the playoffs had they won that game.
But on Saturday night when the clock hits 0:00 at the Smoothie King Center, all of that is likely to be gone.
Markets come and markets go in the Arena Football League, and this will be the 28th time in 29 seasons where at least one team either moved or folded from the previous season.
But this one is just a little more personal to me. New Orleans is where I covered my first ArenaBowl for ArenaFan. New Orleans is where I was introduced to the goodness that is jambalaya and the headache-to-come that is the hand grenade. New Orleans is where we started to cover the story of David Baker's departure from the AFL. New Orleans is the only place I've gone to cover a regular season game outside of the state of Florida since I was in college.
But alas, poor ownership, broken promises, and a balance sheet which tilted a lot more to the liability side than the asset side finally did the VooDoo in.
The Arena Football League needed the city of New Orleans just as the city of New Orleans needed the Arena Football League.
But the Bayou deserved better than what it has gotten for the last several years, and that's why the team is headed into the graveyard after Saturday night.