It’s the start of the cultural season, but that doesn’t just entail dance or theatre. No! The Saints have their very own definite culture, and fans are pumping up to express it in very New Orleans ways. In anticipation of the upcoming Monday night game in the Dome against the Falcons, we sat down with Jared Sampson, Director of Game Day Entertainment and Special Events for the New Orleans Saints, to talk about what goes into planning all of those extracurricular activities for fans.
Tell me a little bit about what you do for the Saints.
Well, as Director of Game Day Entertainment and Special Events, my primary duties center on game day, of course, so entertainment with a Saints game involves a lot of different things. That includes the Champions Square bands, the national anthem, pregame festivities and then also halftime and anything that kind of goes and fits into any of those categories.
What’s new? What’s old? What’s been here before? And what can we expect that we may not have seen before?
Well, each game has a theme, and those themes vary, anything from breast cancer awareness to military appreciation. Of course, this is our 50th season, so we’re really planning some special things to bring the fans down a small trip of memory lane. We don’t want to take them too, too far back or focus on too much of the past because we really have a great present right now. But we’re going to kind of just take a little brief flashback on a few moments and bring a few kind of important people back.
Fans will appreciate that because, if they’re like me, they have been fans for a very long time. And we always have adored our team. Have you seen that in what you do?
Absolutely. I get so many emails and phone calls. They are very active fans. They have songs that they write. They have ideas for different things that they want us to do. It’s just great to hear from the fans that they are that active and are writing songs and are committed to the team and take pride enough to want to provide some content – we’ll say that – for our games.
Rank the fans, one through ten, compared to other teams.
Eleven or more. I mean, our fans are great! They just have so much energy and enthusiasm. Win or lose, the fans are right there with us, and again, the feedback that we get – or that I get at least through the entertainment department – they are 100% the best fans in the league.
How do they reflect the New Orleans culture? Do you see a lot of that seeping into the fan culture that you oversee?
Our fans are definitely a true reflection, in my opinion, of the culture of New Orleans, very diverse in ages, race. We have costume fans. They call themselves the Super Fans. And there’s just so many different types of fans. I don’t think anybody is truly a casual fan. You can’t really be a casual Saints fan. I think you are either a diehard Saints fan or not, and some are just the degree of diehard varies. I don’t know if there’s ever a Saints fan in there who’s just there with nothing fleur-de-lis, black and gold. They come decked out from the rain boots to the scarves and the hats and the earrings and the Mardi Gras beads, so no matter what type of fan they are, they’re all die hard with different degrees of that.
You’ve tapped into that a little bit with the Black and Gold Patrol, which was new last year.
We wanted to create an interactive team, similar to the Pelicans. They have what they call the Swoop Troop. Our fans don’t need to be prompted on how to do much of anything. They stand up. They yell. They cheer. But we wanted to have a team that really made them feel appreciated, and we go up to the 500 level and interact with them, the 600 level, and so this team is basically designed to enhance what the fans are already doing. So they chant and they cheer, and they just get the fans involved and make sure each section feels appreciated.
This season, we’re starting off with 29 members, and they’re all of different ages, races. We have a grandma. We have an 18-year-old. They’re all probably level 10 when it comes to personality or higher.
Ironically, we have a couple of people who are season ticket holders, and I asked them in the interview process, because we did interview them during the audition, “Are you sure you want to give up your seat and not watch the game and just be there as a participant?” They’re like, “I want to do anything that involves being a part of making this team great.”
What were you looking for in the auditions? Were you looking for people who were a little crazy?
Absolutely! We wanted crazy people! And they’re all a little crazy but in a good way. A good crazy. I think you have to be to want to stand up in front of 72,000 fans, 8,000 or more fans in Champions Square.
I think all Saints fans are a little bit crazy, right?
I don’t want to say all, but yeah. I think football fans in general – you know, that fandemonium kicks in. It’s the highlight of the day for a lot of people, and it’s amazing. I’ve talked to people in our youth programs department and our community affairs department, and the Saints really affect people in many, many different ways, so crazy meaning, yes, they’re crazy about us. And we’re crazy about them as well.
It’s not just about the game on the field. The culture has grown beyond that to a way that it really does instill itself into life.
I was looking out the window the other day, and we had a car pulled up in the parking lot, and it was black and gold. It had stickers that I guess we’ve probably given away at the games or maybe stickers that they had bought or the magnetized decals, and it was just completely covered in it. It is definitely in the culture. You go to any store or restaurant, and there are schedules out and just so many different things, and the city really just revolves around it.
What do you think the Saints do for the culture of New Orleans?
I think it gives you something to take pride in. It gives you something to really reflect your city. Of course, New Orleans is known for food. It’s known for music. It’s known for many, many things, but this is a way to connect us with other cities as well. Hey, we host a team in our city. They come down. They enjoy our culture. They enjoy our home. Even though there’s a little competitiveness going on there, but we host, and we get to show off our city and show off a lot about what we do, and football gives us that opportunity to bring people here and then to show people what New Orleans is all about.
I think our atmosphere, it’s fun. It’s light. It’s come as you are. Let’s have a good time. It’s all about having a good time. Just like people come down for Mardi Gras or anything else; we want people to come in. It’s our party, but hey, you’re welcome to come and join our party. But you know, don’t be afraid if we win.
Do you think the whole entertainment aspect of NFL in general has grown?
It definitely has grown. I actually just came back from what they call game presentation meetings, where all 32 clubs had members present, and we talked about things that fans overall, through NFL surveys, are looking for. We also do our own surveys to find out what our fans want. What type of music do they like? What type of half time entertainment do they prefer? What are they looking for in an anthem? Do you want a local person? Do you want a big name? So we do take time to really find out what fans want, and entertainment is an area that enhances the game. Of course, people come there for football, but they also want a good half time. They want a great anthem moment as well. So we do take time to really understand what our fans what, because entertainment is a key aspect of the game as well.
You reflect New Orleans in a lot of what you choose.
Absolutely. With Champions, we’ve tried brass bands. We’ve tried a number of different things out there. And people really like the cover bands out there, but some are a little more rock, some a little more pop, so they give you a little bit of variety. In the stadium, country, rock, hip hop. There’s a variety of different music we play. Local when we can
We also have to incorporate what the players want, to a degree, and we try to take that time during the player warmups to really give them the music that they want to hear, because of course that’s the time when we’re really trying to get them to channel their energy to get their head in the game.
What do they request?
Ironically, we get techno requests, and it’s usually stuff that they play when they practice, and it kind of comes over. There’s hip hop a little bit, and rock even. And we throw some stuff in.
Your surveys of New Orleans fans: What do we like?
We like variety. Absolutely. Surprisingly a lot of country has popped up. Hip hop. They like oldies but goodies. Some classic rock. Even a little hard core rock, you know? But definitely variety. It’s a gumbo. What they want is a gumbo and a diverse music playlist that really gets them in a certain mood. A song is supposed to evoke a certain action, so when we play a certain song at defense or for a touchdown, we want the fans to feel it and understand it and take it and do whatever that song makes you want to do. If it makes you want to dance, makes you want to cheer, makes you want to yell, we want that song to do that.
Are there any entertainment things coming our way that we should look for?
Will Smith and Hokie Gaijan were both nominated and selected for the Saints Hall of Fame, and that’s happening during one of our games this season, so I think that’s going to be definitely a high.
And then, of course, again mentioning it’s our 50th season, so we’ll have some great things again, just to kind of take the fans back on a memory lane. Right now, I think we have an all 50th team being selected by the fans, so you’ll see some familiar faces who you haven’t seen on the field for a while.
I guess ultimately culture unites us and brings us together and makes us community, and certainly the Saints do that perhaps more strongly and better than any other aspect of our city.
It’s amazing to see people who probably come from different parts of the city who may not ever cross paths and they’ve been friends – they’re neighbors, if you will, because they’re season ticket holders, so they have season tickets, and they’ve sat by these people for years. They watched their kids grow up. Now, the kids might have the tickets, and now they’re bringing their kids, and they’re trading pictures, and they’re going down memory lane, and even with some of the – I know a few of the people who work for the Dome, and they have these stations, and they’ve been there. They’ve been the usher there for 20, 30 years, you know? It’s a family bond. It’s a unity. And that is a culture. You look forward to coming and seeing these folks at the game. If they’re not there, “Where’s so-and-so? Why are they not here today?” you know? And you look forward to seeing them on game day. And that might be the only ten times you see them for the year, but when you see them, it’s family, and you’re really, really embracing them, and again, it might be people you may not ever interact with in the city other than on game day.
Have you had a lot of fan craziness evolve into things like the 610 Stompers?
A group like the 610 Stompers and how they interact can enhance what’s going on. There’s also a group called the Fat City Drum Corps, and they had been marching around the Dome for a number of years, on their own, a group of fans. They’re all musicians, and they decided they just wanted to march around the Dome and have a good time. And when I started with the team in 2011, towards the end of the season, I was challenged with thinking up some things, so I called a friend of mine who’s a musician and works for a music store and asked, “Hey, can you help me get a quote on drums,” He was like, “Well, you know, I’m a part of a group that just kind of marches around for fun.” I was like, “Really? Send me some more details.” So then we were able to bring them in and it’s just kind of evolved over the years.
Storyville Jazz Band, that’s another group, too. Again they’re a separate entity. We, for lack of better words, contract them out to be a part of the game. So they roam the Dome inside and go through the different seats and sections. That’s a great group, and they’ve been around for probably longer than I’ve been on the planet.
We’ve embraced that a little bit more. They’re still not necessarily official, — they’re not the Saints Drum Corps or whatever, but definitely we enjoy working with and bring them in.
The games are fun.
You have to have fun. Win or lose, you’ve got to come out of that Dome at the end of the night and say, “I had a great time! That half time was awesome. That anthem gave me goosebumps. The Saintsations were amazing, the Fat City Drum Corps was great. That guy made me smile. That lady put a smile on my face. They high fived me on the way out of the Dome and made me feel great.”
How else can fans get involved?
We do what’s called a season ticket holder flag unfurl, and during the player introductions, we allow fans to come down and participate in that. They have to sign up; they can go on to NewOrleansSaints.com, click on tickets and stadium, and then there’s a link that says flag unfurl, and you click on that, and you can sign up, pick one game, and you and your family and friends who are going to attend that game anyway can come down and help us unfurl the flag during player introductions. So you’re down on the field. The lights are out. The spotlights are ballyhooing, and out comes the team, and you’re down there shaking the flag and having a good time. That experience, it’s something like no other.
Take the Saints Game Day Survey here. Season ticket-holders can sign up for the Game Day Flag Unfurl here. On Monday night, gates to Champions Square open at 4:30 and admission is free and open to the public. Bag of Donuts will be onstage pre-game.