Super Bowl set to kick off in fun-loving New Orleans

NEW ORLEANS, Louisiana (AFP) - Jazz bands are playing, the crawfish boiling and daiquiris swirling on Sunday, as party goers crammed bars and restaurants ahead of Super Bowl 47, the pinnacle sporting event that transfixes America each year.

New Orleans knows how to throw a bash, and with the Super Bowl and Mardi Gras coming in the same month, football fans are getting a double dose of revelry in the build-up to the big game.

The Baltimore Ravens and San Francisco 49ers face each other for the first time in a Super Bowl to see who will be crowned the National Football League champion.

The most watched single event in US sports is being held this year just blocks from New Orleans' Bourbon and Canal streets, where fans have been rubbing shoulders all week with athletes, corporate executives and Hollywood stars in town for the big bash.

The festive atmosphere is a much needed shot in the arm both spiritually and economically for New Orleans, which was devastated by Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

Fans began lining up to get into the 70,000-seat Superdome stadium eight hours before the scheduled kickoff between the Ravens and the 49ers, while millions more were set to watch on television as the event capped a week of Super Bowl merriment in The Big Easy.

Tickets from scalpers were going for between US$1,500 to US$2,000 (S$1,860 to S$2,481) outside the stadium and parking lots in the area jacked up their prices by charging US$150 per car.

Those lucky enough to snag a ticket had to navigate through a labyrinth of security just to get inside the Superdome, including passing through metal detectors, bag searches, sniffer dogs and pat downs.

Matt Bennett drove 17 hours from his home in Baltimore to see his beloved Ravens. He paid US$1,500 to a ticket-broker for his coveted seat.

"You can't put a price on an experience like this," said the 30-year-old Bennett who manages a moving company. "This is a once in a lifetime thing. It is the Ravens, it is Ray Lewis' last game. I would go anywhere," he said, referring to the team's star linebacker, who said he is retiring after Sunday's game.

Bennett, who was carrying a 24 case of beer which he planned to drink by himself, said watching the NFL back home is the highlight of his week.

"I go to my buddies' house and we have 50 people over and watch it on 10 TVs," Bennett said.

People also crammed into bars and restaurants along Canal Street for lavish Super Bowl parties, stepping right into the party atmosphere and making sure they got there early to stake out a good viewing spot for the ultimate gridiron showdown.

The lineup was to include pop star Alicia Keys, while concerts featured everyone from Paul McCartney to Lil Wayne to Justin Timberlake. Singer Beyonce, meanwhile, is to perform at at half-time.

Posh restaurants were booked for private parties catered by celebrity chefs famous for their unique southern cuisine.

Just blocks from the Superdome was the NFL Experience at the New Orleans Convention Center where fans have the opportunity to get autographs, play interactive games and peruse the huge selection of memorabilia on display.

Angel Amaro, of El Paso, Texas, who drove to the Super Bowl with his father Manuel, paid US$4,000 for two tickets in the lower section.

"I wanted to attend the game and make the most of the experience with my dad," the 34-year-old pharmacist Amaro said.

City officials have pulled out all the stops to let visitors know New Orleans is back in business, having finally recovered from the devastation of Katrina.

The state of Louisiana provided US$6 million and the local organising committee raised US$7.5 million to put on the game.

The city has also been spruced up with improvements to building facades, new lamp posts, highway overpasses and the Superdome itself decorated with Super Bowl XLVII banners and signs.

The hordes of people flocked to raucous Bourbon Street all week where strip clubs also got into the act by hiring extra dancers and stocking up on additional alcohol to keep up with the high demand.

Even the traditional Mardi Gras beads tossed to revellers from balconies have a Super Bowl spin to them this year with some featuring miniature footballs while others were shaped like helmets.

Super Bowl 47 comes at just the right time to help The Big Easy's bottom line. Before Katrina, the city had 10.5 million visitors annually, but projections are that slightly more than nine million visited the city in 2012.

Most people are expected to leave via the Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport.

On a normal day about 15,000 people pass through the airport's gates, but the number is expected to double on Monday, as the football-loving revellers head home.

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