Why The Big Winner Of March Madness Will Be New Orleans

Even before the final buzzer, when it had become clear that UNC had beaten Cinderella St. Peter’s and would play his alma mater in the Final Four, Steve Lanter knew he had to get down to the Big Easy.

For the 54-year old Washington DC attorney and Duke alumnus, the historical matchup between his Blue Devils and the Tar Heels, one of college basketball’s great rivalries, is even more unmissable given longtime head coach Mike Krzyzewski’s upcoming retirement. “To see Duke play UNC in Coach K’s final games, you just can’t script it better than that,” Lanter says. “It’s like a storybook.”

There were just three problems. As of Sunday night, Lanter had not booked flights to New Orleans, and had neither a place to stay nor game tickets. But through a group email chain with about 30 Duke fraternity brothers, a scrappy, impromptu plan quickly took shape. “We are all flying in from around the country, doing whatever we can to stay wherever we can,” Lanter says.

No matter which Final Four team wins the men’s NCAA basketball tournament at the Caesars Superdome next weekend, one could argue that the big winner will be the host city. Over the upcoming weekend, New Orleans will see an economic injection of more than $170 million, according to New Orleans & Company, the city’s destination marketing organization.

That forecast is likely a conservative estimate, given that the Crescent City reeled in $169 million when it hosted the Final Four a decade ago, and considering the pent-up fervor for the championship since it was canceled in 2020 and scaled back in 2021.

And then there’s the North Carolina factor. Perennial favorites Duke and North Carolina have played each other more than 250 times, but never in a Final Four—a surprising fact that has many in the state dreaming about a spontaneous trip to New Orleans.

On Sunday, when UNC passed into the Final Four, searches for flights from North Carolina airports to New Orleans for the following weekend surged by 98%, according to Hayley Berg, Head of Price Intelligence at Hopper, the deal-finding site.

At the same time, Google Trends registered a massive spike in North Carolina users searching for “flights to New Orleans.”

The sudden demand has sent airfares soaring, according to Google Travel, which says prices for flights between Raleigh-Durham and New Orleans for this weekend are the highest they’ve been in the past 60 days. Just between Sunday and Monday, the average price for a plane ticket on that route jumped by 50%.

Airfares to NOLA are sky high from other parts of the country, too, as Lanter discovered when he tried to book roundtrip DC-New Orleans flights for the weekend. “There were no flights unless you want to pay $2,200 to fly Spirit Air and have a have a layover in Cleveland,” he says. †And there is literally no availability on flights out on Tuesday.”

By Monday evening, Lanter had settled on a Wednesday-to-Wednesday roundtrip flight. “I’ll be working remotely out of a coffee shop for four days,” he says, noting that had also cobbled together a week’s worth of accommodations, staying a few nights in a hotel and a few nights with a friend.

Over the last few days, Hotels.com has seen a 15% increase in searches for New Orleans hotels. The average hotel rate in the area is hovering around $470 a night for Friday and Saturday nights, about three times what is typical, with properties in the French Quarter and Warehouse District completely sold out.

Lanter is optimistic that he will eventually secure game tickets through his Duke network. “I’m sure I’m gonna have to pay through the nose for tickets. I’m gonna pay through the nose for everything—but it’s worth it,” Lanter says. “Duke fans are very spoiled, in that we’ve been to the Final Four more than most basketball fans. Every time is really special, but this is definitely the most special.”

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