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Monica Hernandez / Eyewitness News
Email: mhernandez@wwltv.com | Twitter: @mhernandezwwl

NEW ORLEANS - It's a Thanksgiving weekend tradition that draws tens of thousands of people. The annual Bayou Classic is getting underway, with a parade Thursday and the Battle of the Bands Friday leading up to Saturday's big game.

The night before Grambling State and Southern University go head to head in football, their bands faced off on the field. It's an annual tradition that thousandsattend inside the Superdome.

Organizers say about 200,000 visitors are in town for the 39th annual Bayou Classic. But in the last few years, attendance at the game itself has hit record lows. It's something organizers are working to change.

'We don't think it's for a lack of wanting to come, we think people have had to make very tough decisions about their money over the last few years, and sometimes, some of the fun things, you have to say, I'm sorry, not this year. And I think the Bayou Classic has been a victim of that,' said Kim Bondy, Bayou Classic producer.

Organizers dropped ticket prices this year. And for the first time, they've included Champions Square in the event. The free fan fest is an effort make the Bayou Classic a family affair with something for everyone.

Cornel and Jeannette are attending the Bayou Classic from Los Angeles for the first time. And they said ancillary events like fan fest add to the atmosphere.

'We don't really have anything like that in LA. We have a lot of things, nothing with this kind of character and culture,' said Cornel Stewart, a New Orleans native whose parents attended Southern.

'I would just encourage everybody to just come out here at least once in your lifetime to just experience New Orleans in this way, it's just a fantastic experience for me,' said Jeannette Stewart.

Tourism officials said the event continues to have a $30 million economic impact. Hotels are at nearly 90 percent occupancy. And ticket sales hit over 45,000 for the first time in two years.

'There's really an effort to make Bayou Classic even bigger and better than it has been in years past,' said Kelly Schulz, vice president of the New Orleans Convention and Visitors Bureau.

And fans hope that growth means the Bayou Classic will be held in New Orleans for years to come.

'It has been a tremendous event for years. I have seen it grow and bloom and blossom in so many ways,' said Deidra Lacy, a Southern alum who has attended the Bayou Classic for decades.

Organizers said the event is scheduled to be held in the Superdome for at least two more years.

Proceeds from the event are split between the two universities.
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