Down. Set. March. Football classics bring the HBCU experience--and Black college marching bands--to big-time arenas.
Black college football teams do not play in bowl games. The only venues that come close to duplicating a bowl atmosphere are the annual classic games that are played during the regular season at a variety of locales across the U.S.
Black college football got major media attention for the first time in 1968 when Grambling State University, coached by the legendary Eddie Robinson, played Morgan State in the Invitational Football Classic at Yankee Stadium in New York City. The game drew more than 64,000 people. This was proof that Black college football, under the right circumstances, could be financially viable. The proceeds from that game--$200,000--helped to bankroll a local academy and a scholarship fund to help inner-city youth pay for college.
Over the years, other "classic" games have come on the scene and the results have been mixed. Some remain viable while others have fallen by the wayside.
The classics with the most longevity and magnetism that keep huge crowds coming back year after year tend to be those games involving schools with storied rivalries. The games are played at neutral sites at big stadiums in big cities.
"Eddie Robinson was my mentor and he always reminded me about why a classic game has value," said Joe Taylor, Florida A&M's head football coach. "He explained that he could play a game at home and not have a sellout. But when he took that same game to Dallas to play a classic, the stadium would be packed. Because of the larger crowds, the schools get more exposure than they would normally and it helps with recruiting. It's a win-win for both schools. In most cases, the classics have a huge impact on their local communities. They allot a portion of the profits to pay for college scholarships and that's always a positive."
There's more to these classics than just the action on the field. They are weekend-long events, much like a school's homecoming, only on a grander scale. Fashion shows, tailgating, job fairs, step shows, parades and a vast array of other events add flavor to the classics experience.
Jackson State University plays in three classics annually, a number surpassed only by Black college football powerhouses Florida A&M, Prairie View A&M, Southern and Grambling State universities.
"There's so much pride for the alumni of both schools," said Rick Comegy, Jackson State's head coach. "For the host cities, there's a lot of excitement, especially if they don't have any access to Black college games. People don't come to the classics just for the game; they come for the weekend. But the key for promoters is to bring in exciting teams who have a following. If they don't do that, then it's just another regular season game."
The beat marches on
Even though football is the centerpiece, there cannot be a classic game without the marching bands. Black college bands are known for putting on high-energy halftime shows, affectionately known as the "fifth quarter." Precision drills, elaborate dance routines, high-stepping drum majors and drum line face-offs between the schools keep people in their seats at halftime. It's not unusual for thousands to hang around the stadium after the game to enjoy the show the bands put on.
"Having the bands from both schools takes things to an entirely different level," said Bill Hamilton, a veteran sports information director at South Carolina State. "Marching bands are part of the Black culture," he explained. "It generates excitement for the young and the elderly alike."
"We're part of the entertainment package," said Dr. Reginald McDonald, band director at Tennessee State. "The bands can be just as big a draw as the game itself. When bands compete against one another, it's not a win or lose situation. All the bands play the popular songs, so it's an opportunity for each band to put their own rendition out there. The audience response always lets you know who they like the best."
The bands also benefit from playing in front of larger crowds. The increased exposure is a boost for recruiting future band members, and, depending on the classic, there are monetary rewards. That's significant because, in most cases, according to McDonald, the bands do not get any portion of the proceeds from classic games.
"The Southern Heritage Classic and the Atlanta Football Classic do an excellent job of providing financial support that goes directly to the bands" said McDonald. "The amounts we receive are enough to fund one-year scholarships for as many as four band members."
Each classic game has its own loyal fan base, and there will always be a raging debate as to which is better than the other. For Eric Moore, managing editor of HBCUSports.com, the Florida Classic and the Magic City Classic are at the head of the class.
"The Florida Classic [is] No. 1," said Moore, who has covered Black college sports through his website since 1997. "It's a big ticket event. Orlando is a major gathering place for Florida A&M and Bethune-Cookman alumni. There's always a host of vendors that surround the stadium. The game usually has added meaning because both teams are always among the top title contenders in the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference. Plus, there's always the potential for a huge halftime show.
"Magic City is a closed second. Birmingham does an excellent job as the host city. The multiple events connected to the game keep people coming back every year. The big plus is that every year, the fans come out in large numbers regardless of the game's importance."
However, Florida A&M's highly-acclaimed "Marching 100" band has been placed on indefinite suspension and will not perform during the 2 01213 academic year. FAMU's band is a prime moneymaker for the school because of its precision and well-choreographed halftime shows. As a result, the suspension is expected to have a considerably negative impact on the university's budget and game attendance.
More than just a game
Classics do provide a windfall profit for many HBCUs. But that doesn't mean that school administrators should "load up" their football schedules with classic games. Doing so might not be in the school's best interests, said Dr. Percy Caldwell, athletic director at Grambling State University. Grambling plays in four classics every year.
"We play in our share of classics" he said, "but we want to make sure that we always have at least four on-campus games. Students deserve the opportunity to see their team compete. When you choose to play home games somewhere else, you take away that opportunity. Under those circumstances, the majority of students don't get that chance to see any games. If you keep moving home games away from campus, they may not want to support the team."
There was a time when classic games were the only means for Black colleges to get national notoriety and a sizable paycheck. That's no longer the case with the availability of the "guarantee games" These are games in which HBCUs opt to play on the road against the big-time programs in exchange for an agreed-upon six figure payday. These match-ups, which in most cases turn out to be blow-out losses for Black schools, are financially lucrative. HBCUs can make $400,000-plus, which, in many instances, exceeds what they would make by playing in a classic game.
"I think that HBCUs will lean more towards playing guarantee games" said Oliver "Buddy" Pough, South Carolina State's head coach. "The schools offering the guarantees have the television contract money and the large fan base to ensure large payouts consistently. As for the classics, I don't know if the level of revenue will be like it once was. But for classic games that are well-organized and have the proper support in place, they will continue to survive and do well"
The way that Black colleges do business with the classics is likely to change to some extent in the future. A prime example is the Shreveport Classic in Louisiana, which is entering its third year. The late October game features Southern and Prairie View A&M universities.
Under this arrangement, the two schools have partnered with the City of Shreveport to put on the event. Since there's no third-party promoter involved, the participating schools get more of the proceeds. It doesn't hurt that Southern has a branch campus in Shreveport.
"We've come together to make this game and make it grow," said Fred Washington, Prairie View A&M's athletic director. "I don't see the classic games going away. But there will be changes in approach. It's going to take more than someone signing a check to make a classic game attractive. We're looking to form partnerships that will help us establish our brands while at the same time, helping us to enhance our recruiting."
The beat marches on ...
There are 39 Black college football classics on the 2012 schedule. The list below includes those games that are considered to be in the top tier in terms of attendance and economic impact.
Florida Classic, Citrus Bowl, Orlando, Fla.--Bethune-Cookman vs. Florida A&M: Since moving to the land of Disney 15 years ago, this matchup has maintained an average attendance of 67,315. Estimated economic impact: $31 million.
Magic City Classic, Legion Field, Birmingham, Ala.--Alabama A&M vs. Alabama State. This is the HBCU version of Alabama-Auburn. Last year's game drew a crowd of 66,473. Estimated economic impact: $24.3 million.
Southern Heritage Classic, Liberty Bowl, Memphis, Tenn.-Jackson State vs. Tennessee State: New contract extension runs through 2019. Game attracts between 40,000 to 50,000 every year. Estimated economic impact: $21 million.
Bayou Classic, Mercedes-Benz Superdome, New Orleans, La.--Grambling vs. Southern University: Teams split $1.3 million in proceeds from last season's game (44,015 attendance). Nationally televised on NBC, which recently renewed its contract for five years. Estimated economic impact: $30 million.
State Fair Classic, Cotton Bowl, Dallas, Tex.--Grambling vs. Prairie View A&M: Played on opening weekend of the State Fair of Texas, an event that brings in $10 million to the local economy. The Cotton Bowl is located on state fairgrounds. Crowds of 40,000 to 50,000 are the norm. Excellent entertainment bargain. When you buy a ticket for this classic, you get automatic admission to the state fair.
Atlanta Football Classic, Georgia Dome, Atlanta, Ga.--Florida A&M vs. Southern University: Game has featured different match-ups over the years, but that hasn't had a negative impact on how many folks show up. Since 2000, average attendance is a little over 66,000.
End of the line
When Tuskegee plays Alabama State on Thanksgiving in Montgomery, Ala., it will signal the end of the nation's longest-running HBCU classic. The Turkey Day Classic, first played in 1924, will shut down after 88 years. The classic was ended so that Tuskegee will be eligible to qualify for the NCAA Division II Playoffs. The two teams are looking to continue their rivalry on a home-and-home basis.
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|Title Annotation:||historically black colleges and universities|
|Author:||Greenlee, Craig T.|
|Publication:||Diverse Issues in Higher Education|
|Date:||Aug 30, 2012|
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