New Orleans is a city with deep ties and deeper roots, but in sports–usually a great unifier–there remains a pervasive disconnect: the Saints and the Pelicans. A native New Orleanian, Malik takes us into the vibrant tailgates that make Saints games special and the lack there of that holds back the Pels.
Growing up in Louisiana has many perks. We come from a very strong culture out here and anyone not familiar with the area who comes to visit could tell you the same. Outside of the food, music, and nightlife is something else that New Orleanians thrive on: sports. The Saints and Pelicans are our teams.
I do remember coming up that not many people I knew were Saints fans. But these were just kids around me who didn’t know much about football, but knew the Saints weren’t too much to look at. As for the Pelicans, they weren’t even around until I got a little older. When they came to New Orleans in 2002, they were the Hornets; a franchise that was relocated after leaving Charlotte and owner George Shinn.
Unfortunately two years after the team’s relocation, New Orleans was devastated by Hurricane Katrina, which displaced and left thousands of families helpless. Many more concerns started to peak as well, such as the future of New Orleans sports. The next season the Pelicans would go on to play in Oklahoma City. The city embraced the Hornets because at the time they had no professional sports team. With the Hornets not even present for my childhood, the team going to OKC didn’t help my fandom much.
The Saints were also forced to relocate for the 2005 season due to the Superdome being damaged. The Saints played four home games in Tiger Stadium at LSU, three games at the Alamodome in Houston, and one other so-called “home game” at MetLife Stadium in New Jersey. So as you can see, New Orleans sports fans have been taken for a ride this century, but that would never stop a true fan.
I say this to say I am still trying to figure out the disconnect between Pelicans and Saints fans because they’ve both suffered from losing their team. The stadiums are literally right across the street from one another, but for some reason, one just feels more electric. Going to a Hornets/Pelicans game is cool, mainly because tickets are so cheap you can go with a group of friends and catch an NBA game without burning holes in your pockets. So why not?
But going to a Saints game is entirely different. You have fans tailgating hours before the game. Some people travel from out of town just to tailgate and don’t even go to the game! A tailgate is typically where people BBQ right next to a RV trailer, often in a parking lot. Some of the best times of my life have been at tailgates. It is all good when you’re eating burgers, drinking cold beer, and socializing with other Saints fans.
Beyond tailgates, I think what separates Saints fans is their raw passion. I have never seen a fan base so emotionally invested in their team. It’s kind of refreshing to watch, to be honest, and remember, the Saints weren’t even much to look at coming up, but even then the stadium was packed and fans were going crazy.
I can’t say the same for the Pelicans and I can’t quite put my finger on why, but it has something to do with the culture around the team. During a Saints game, the streets are packed and everybody is vibrant and in good spirits. Your boss might even let you off work an hour early because she wants to catch the game as well. The arena is erupting, the lights are bright, and the music and drinks make you feel like you’re part of the team.
What I am sure of is that any Pelicans revival has to start here. New Orleans needs to rally behind this team. Maybe they run special ticket deals to help fans stay engaged and attend games more regularly? Maybe they do more outreach with players in the community?
I know I spoke of the Pelicans not playing in front of packed houses most nights, but I will say, for primetime games against the league’s premier teams, the Smoothie King Center is a great place to be. In the video below you can see how the city came together and represented after landing the first pick in the draft Zion Williamson. His debut was electric and conjured a real sense of optimism that the team and community were on the rise. Maybe we can turn this thing around after all. It’s just going to take a citywide effort to get invested and the Pelicans flight is bound to take off.