As you may or may not know, there is an official Arsenal supporter group network in the US. It’s called Arsenal America, and they have branches of varying size and activity level all over the country. One of the most fun branches is NOLA Gooners, based, obviously, in New Orleans, a city known for its fun, particularly this time of year.
This time of year is Carnival, which you’re probably most acquainted with from the images you always see of parades in Rio de Janeiro. But Carnival is celebrated in many Catholic nations, as a runup to Mardi Gras, or Fat Tuesday, which is the day before the Lenten season of sacrifice begins.
One of the traditions of Carnival and Mardi Gras is parades. There are many - depending on the country, they may be daily (or multiple times a day in different neighborhoods) during Carnival, or may be a bit less frequent, but they’re joyous strolls through a community, featuring overindulgence in all the things one will be giving up for Lent.
In New Orleans, these parades are run and sponsored by krewes - groups of like-minded people who often have generations worth of experience running their krewe, and who make sure that the parades have floats, decorations, and can attract people to both join and watch them.
have a krewe, are also known as Krewe of Arsenal, and every year since 2014 they, in association with Arsenal America, put on Gooner Gras, a three-day festival celebrating Mardi Gras, Carnival, and Arsenal. Here are a few highlights of the 2015 Gooner Gras.
On the eve of this year’s Gooner Gras, our own Michael Chrisman sat down with Colin, the president of NOLA Gooners and head of the Gooner Gras organizing committee, to ask him all about their celebration.
Colin, can you give the history of Gooner Gras and how the idea first came to be?
In late 2013, I was hanging out at the pub with some friends after a match. My buddy Omar, a Krewe of Arsenal forefather, pitched the idea to invite Gooners from nearby cities to come to New Orleans to experience a taste of Mardi Gras and our dear pub, Finn McCool's, which is basically my living room, not to mention the best bar in New Orleans. "We could call it... Gooner Gras!" I said. We laughed. It was a joke, a drunken banter brainstorm. Little did we know, the regional Arsenal supporters branch meetup was born that day, and now, four years later, it's a four-day long national meetup with almost 200 guests.
What is the objective/purpose of Gooner Gras?
Of course, Gooner Gras is about having fun, drinking too much, eating too much, sleeping too little, and indulging however you see unfit. That's what Mardi Gras is about, and we want to give Arsenal supporters everywhere a taste of that. In the tradition of New Orleans' Mardi Gras krewes though, charitable giving has always been a large part of our mission.
We have really used Gooner Gras as a platform to raise money for great local charities, like Youth Run NOLA, which we have raised a few thousand dollars for over the past few years. When the 2016 Louisiana floods took place last August, we knew we had to use the network we'd built with Gooner Gras to do something, and Gooners from all over the country stepped up. We raised almost $9,000 to help victims of the devastating flooding that received little attention in the national media, despite twenty Louisiana parishes north of New Orleans being declared federal disaster areas in the aftermath.
Since the original GG, how have you seen its popularity grow or change?
The first year (2014), we only managed to convince a dozen or so people to travel to New Orleans from Austin, Chicago, and a few other places. Locals included, we had forty to fifty in attendance. We didn't plan it during a big parade weekend because we weren't sure how that would affect travel plans with booked-up hotels and such. The people that came loved the city though and did an amazing job spreading the word, so in year two, we knew we had to get people there when Mardi Gras was really getting into full-swing.
We doubled our attendance in 2015 to somewhere near but not quite 100, and last year, we had around 130 from as far as California, Canada, Malaysia, and of course, London. The event was extended to four days long for the first time. We had two big private parties with open bars and even a balcony view of parades on Frenchmen St. (thanks to Arsenal America), and we raised a few thousand dollars for charity as lagniappe.
Why should a fellow Gooner make the trip to NOLA for the event? What can they expect to do/experience/be provided with?
First, I highly suggest checking out the full details of the event on Facebook because we're really excited about how this year came together. Basically, we have parties planned on Thursday and Friday nights, we'll be at the pub early for the Arsenal match on Saturday, and then we'll end up downtown on Frenchmen St. for the parades that night.
We have the event on "Krewe du Vieux weekend" every year (though the dates vary) because it's the parade that effectively sets Mardi Gras into motion in a lot of locals' minds, mind you still more than two weeks before "Mardi Gras day," as we say. This year, we're doing something different on Sunday and going to the Fair Grounds, one of the oldest horse racing tracks in the country. It's just another unique New Orleans experience, and with the match on Saturday (it has been on Sunday the past couple of years), we felt we needed to give everyone another excuse to get together before heading home.
Is there anything most people don't know about or happens at Gooner Gras?
First of all, before Gooner Gras, an incredible amount of time and effort goes into making this thing happen. I think most people understand that, and we really do appreciate it. I don't bring this up for my own benefit but for all of the wonderful people who help me, or rather do most of the work. You know who you are. I love you.
Besides that, my tip if you find yourself at a Gooner Gras event is to latch onto to a local Gooner and follow them to the after-parties that will take you away from the tourist traps and into the weirdness of various neighborhood dives. You'll stumble into anything from 24-hour karaoke bars to all-night dance parties of any kind of music to the best bar food you've ever had. Arsenal are undefeated (1-0) when a certain group of Gooners have stayed out all night during Gooner Gras and showed up to the pub without sleeping, so ask around for those people. Someone will know. Conversely, Arsenal are 0-2 during Gooner Gras when no one has stayed out all night. Just sayin.
What is the thing you most enjoy or look forward at the event every year?
Honestly, the thing I enjoy most about Gooner Gras is just seeing all of the friends we've made over the years. I already mentioned our fundraising efforts for the Louisiana flood victims, but the amount of support and love that everyone showed during that time was truly astounding. I would read the comments on Facebook and Twitter, see people from all over the country doing their part to contribute to our small fundraiser, and be emotionally overwhelmed by the kindness of these people I've met over the years at Gooner Gras and Arsenal America events in New York and LA. There's that silly hashtag out there, #goonerfamily, but it really does feel like that to me sometimes. Whenever I teeter toward disillusionment with sport in times where so much more seems infinitely more important, it's the human connection and sense of belonging to something larger than myself that keeps me hooked.
A few of us took the train from New Orleans to LA last summer for the Arsenal festivities (the train takes two days by the way, but that story probably needs its own separate interview). I got the same feeling I get at Gooner Gras. It's just amazing to see so many people coming together for the Arsenal (a team halfway across the world!). You begin to forge relationships with these other crazy people like you, who you see once or twice a year, who get up and go to bars at ungodly hours to watch Arsenal. So, if you went to New York a few years ago or LA last year and had fun, come to Gooner Gras! The amount of people in LA that had heard about Gooner Gras was mind-blowing. We had no idea the awareness had grown as much as it had. We fully expect to hit a critical mass soon and have a big leap in our registration numbers. Maybe next year for the big one, Gooner Gras V?
If a Gooner was on the fence about going, what would you say to persuade them to go?
I would say find anyone who has traveled to Gooner Gras from out of town, and talk to them for five minutes. They'll convince you. I know they will because word of mouth has been our only real marketing tool, not that we're marketing this thing in a business sense. It's not like we make any money doing this. We do it because we love Arsenal and love this city. New Orleans is an amazing, unique place. It sells itself. The truth is, we're going to basically be doing the same thing with or without you. And those of us who live here are going to be doing it for two weeks and a few days after you leave. We just slap the Gooner Gras name on it for a weekend to give you an extra excuse to get down here and enjoy it with us. You won't find nicer people. You won't find better food. You won't be disappointed.
TSF NOTE: Colin also wanted to give special thanks to the entire Gooner Gras organizing committee for all the amazing work they do.
So, if you’re anywhere near New Orleans this weekend, hit up the Gooner Gras FB page and maybe go check it out - this is definitely something I want to do at some point in my life.