New Orleans sports before the NFL came to town

NEW ORLEANS -- When New Orleanians talk sports, the Saints dominate the discussion. Even in the offseason.

Will they be able to afford Drew? Will they draft defense in the first round? Will Kamara and Lattimore be even better next season?

The NBA Pelicans are making a run to get in the conversation. But, even with an NBA team in the mix, New Orleans is a still football town.

It wasn't always that way.

"Long before we started putting 'Sportsman's Paradise' on our licenses plates, and that was only in the '50s, we have been a sportsman's paradise," says sports historian Derby Gisclair.

The Saints have only been around for about 50 of New Orleans' 300 years. Before the NFL came to town, sports fans had plenty to cheer for.

"We had four race courses in the 19th century," Gislcair points out. "We were the epicenter of horse racing here. The Fair Grounds is the third oldest race course continually operating in the country behind Saratoga and Belmont."

Metairie Cemetery was ​once a popular race course, too. In satellite images, you can still see the oval track in the design of the cemetery. In the 1850s, it was the site of one of the great rivalries.

"There was a race between two thoroughbreds, Lexington and Lecomte," says Gisclair. "Those two drew 30,000 people from all over the country to come see that race."

Boxing also found a home in and around New Orleans.

"The very first heavyweight title bout in the United States was held in 1870 in Kenner," says Gislcair. "It was called Kennerville at the time. And, there is a bronze statue out there to commemorate the event."

And, don't let anybody tell you northerners taught southerners how to play baseball during the Civil War. Gislcair says before the war even started, 5 percent of the members of the National Association of Professional Base Ball Players were from New Orleans.

"We started playing baseball here in New Orleans in the 1850s at the Delachaise Estate, where we know as Tchoupitoulas Street," he says. "Back then it was Levee Ave. There was a large open field. That's where we had our first baseball games at the Delachaise Grounds as they called it."