Leaders in Louisiana’s tourism industry — particularly those centered on New Orleans — said the restrictions on transgender people currently under consideration in the state Legislature may drive away major sporting events like the NCAA’s Final Four and the large business conventions that sustain the New Orleans economy.
If people and corporations avoid Louisiana to protest hostile transgender restrictions, it would have a ripple effect that extends far beyond New Orleans. Tourism is one of the major drivers of the state’s overall economy. Tax dollars associated with it also support higher education institutions, health care, highways, K-12 schools and law enforcement in all of Louisiana.
“We could lose everything,” said J.P. Morrell, who sits on the Louisiana Stadium and Exposition District board, which oversees the Louisiana Superdome and Smoothie King Center. “We just can’t afford to knock out one of the legs that is propping up our economy.”
Of immediate concern is how the NCAA will react if Louisiana adopts transgender restrictions this year. New Orleans is expected to host the NCAA Final Four men’s basketball tournament in 2022. Gov. John Bel Edwards went to a press conference celebrating the forthcoming Final Four just last week.
But the NCAA issued a bit of a warning Monday after four states — Mississippi, Arkansas, Tennessee and Idaho — enacted laws banning transgender girls and women from participating in women’s sporting events. The college sports governing authority signaled it might not be willing to hold events in states that restrict transgender athletes, though it stopped short of announcing an outright boycott of those communities yet.
Conservative Louisiana lawmakers have sponsored four bills that would place limits on young people who are transgender. Two pieces of legislation could restrict access to health care — including medication, surgery and mental health services — for transgender people under the age of 18.
The other two bills would ban transgender girls and women from participating in women-only sports competitions from primary school through college. That’s the exact type of legislation the NCAA has warned it might not tolerate.
But the NCAA might not be the only organization to give New Orleans the cold shoulder if Louisiana implements transgender restrictions. Professional sports leagues have also shown a willingness to pull their events over anti-transgender legislation. Conventions and business associations — the backbone of New Orleans tourism industry — could also decide to relocate, said tourism leaders.
“I think we are seeing that corporations, associations and major sports organizations are more and more willing to weigh in on these types of issues,” said Walt Leger, vice president and general counsel of New Orleans & Company, previously called the New Orleans Convention & Visitors Bureau. “They will move their business to other locations when this type of legislation is enacted.”
“Other cities will gladly poach us,” Morrell said more bluntly.
Both Leger and Morrell represented New Orleans in the Louisiana Legislature for several years as Democrats. As elected officials, they opposed previous, unsuccessful bills that imposed restrictions on the LGBTQ community on ethical grounds. They believed the bills were discriminatory, but they said there is also a separate, business-oriented argument for killing anti-transgender legislation.
“If you’re a conservative who believes that the market should drive our decisions, the market is speaking and it’s speaking very clearly,” Leger said. “If you claim to care about the economy of the state, then you should pay attention to what the market is telling you.”
Two state senators who have sponsored the transgender restrictions, Beth Mizell and Michael “Big Mike” Fesi, said they are unlikely to pull their bills in the face of pressure from the NCAA or the business community.
“That’s kind of extortion don’t you think?” said Mizell, R-Franklinton, who is carrying one of the bills to prohibit trasngender women and girls from participating in women-only sports competitions. “We should not let the NCAA or any other special interest group tell us what to do.”
“I have 12 grandchildren,” said Fesi, R-Houma, who sponsored legislation that allows parents to block medical and mental health care sought by a transgender child or teenager. “Parents need to be involved in medical decisions.”
Still, Leger said the post-pandemic convention market is expected to be extremely competitive, with cities and states bidding against each other for the most lucrative events.
Some business groups and conventions already ask Leger’s organization about whether Louisiana and New Orleans are LGBTQ friendly and what type of laws are on the books to support those communities. It’s a factor in their decisions about where to hold their events, he said.
Morrell is also worried that some entertainers and artists — he mentioned singer Katy Perry as an example — could decide to skip New Orleans and Louisiana altogether if anti-transgender laws are enacted.
“Whenever lawmakers pass legislation like this to say certain people are not welcome here, that affects all of us,” he said.
When states have restricted the LGBTQ community in recent years, the backlash from corporations and sports leagues has been swift.
After Indiana passed a law that allowed people to deny the LGBTQ community business services in 2015, the NCAA threatened to move its headquarters from the state and said it would no longer host the Final Four tournament there. Indiana eventually tweaked the measure to address the NCAA’s concerns.
The NCAA also refused to hold events in North Carolina after that state passed a law restricting which bathrooms transgender people could use in 2016. That law was also overhauled, after several large corporations started pulling out of the state. In that case, Louisiana actually benefited from the anger at North Carolina. The NBA ended up moving its 2016 All-Star game from Charlotte to New Orleans because of North Carolina’s bathroom restriction, which has since been changed.
More recently, a number of corporate interests, artists and sports leagues have said they intend to boycott Georgia because of the aggressive voting restrictions enacted by Georgia Republicans following President Joe Biden’s 2020 win in the state. Major League Baseball has pulled its All-Star game from the Atlanta area. A film starring Will Smith is moving its production from Georgia to New Orleans for the same reason, according to The Times-Picayune.