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The business and history behind HBCU ‘Classics’

5th February 2018   ·   0 Comments

By Ryan Whirty
Contributing Writer

Every time the Grambling and Southern football teams descend on New Orleans over Thanksgiving weekend for the Bayou Classic, the plethora of pageantry not only includes the rivalry game, but also a week-long, immersive happening, and a festive social and cultural celebration.

However, underneath the merriment and revelry is economics. By attracting fans, students, journalists and other enthusiasts to New Orleans by the thousands, the Bayou Classic raises tens of thousands of dollars for scholarships.

The game also provides each school’s athletic department with a significant shot of crucial funding that’s used to balance the books for the sports programs.

“It’s critical for us to have these rivalry games,” said Grambling Athletic Director Paul Bryant. “It’s all to generate revenue by putting a spotlight on our kids.”

Fortunately, the annual event has been on the upswing since experiencing dire straits for several years, especially during and after Hurricane Katrina. The Classic’s rebirth was highlighted by a recent annual survey that ranked it as the most-attended HBCU classic of 2017, with 66,550 fervent followers filling the Superdome to witness a 30-21 Grambling victory. The Bayou Classic edged out such similarly significant clashes like the Magic City Classic, the State Fair Classic and the Florida Classic.

In addition, the Southern-Grambling showdown – a rivalry that stretches back nearly 90 years and has formally existed as Bayou Classic since 1974 – claimed the top spot among the 35 most-attended Football Championship Subdivision games last year.

The rankings reveal the significant financial and institutional improvement exhibited by the Bayou Classic; since the management firm NOCCI took over the organizational and outreach aspects in 2017, attendance has shown a marked increase of more than 63 percent.

What that means for the two schools’ ability to raise money for both scholarships and the fiscal health of their athletic departments cannot be understated, said NOCCI President and CEO Dottie Belletto.

“It’s economics,” said Belletto. “It’s all about raising the money that can be brought in for this great classic football game. It’s about having enough funding to support these legendary HBCUs.”

On a broader scale, Black football classic games occur throughout the fall and all over the country, with turnouts easily reaching into the tens of thousands, and most, if not all, providing a critical shot in the financial arm for those involved. That’s on top of the classics’ place in the historical and social tapestry of Black America.

“They bring in students, as well as fans and their relatives,” said writer, commentator and North Carolina A&T adjunct professor David Squires. “I don’t think there’s any other event that guarantees this type of spectacle.

“It’s like the days when we had Negro League baseball – it’s our time to dress up, eat and have a good time. People still go to these classics, with many traveling great distances for the biggest ones. These games are like our Negro Leagues.”

Like the Bayou Classic, over the years, many Black college football rivalries cultivate and depend on regional support, awareness and popularity and the resulting community involvement.

Take Georgia, for example, where in 1994 a wire service article in The Augusta Chronicle analyzed the impact of that city’s CSRA Classic (now called the Augusta City Classic and held at Lucy C. Laney Memorial High School Stadium), which was working to post a five-figure attendance. The paper and game organizers came to a familiar conclusion.

“Classics are an integral part of the football landscape at historically black colleges and universities,” reported writer Noell Barnidge. “Some classics attract more fans than a school’s homecoming game, so it is no surprise that some schools willingly pass up a potential home game to play in one.”

HBCU classics also attract national attention. In 2006, Diverse Education magazine asserted that classics can form the financial lifeblood of an HBCU football program. A well-organized and presented classic can help an athletic department out of the red and into the black by producing a huge payday from ticket sales, sponsorships, television broadcast rights and public- and community-relations bonanzas.

The tradition of football classics began roughly a century ago; in 1919, Howard and Lincoln (Pa.) met in what is believed to be the first contest to informally receive the tag of “classic,” while 1927 saw the first encounters to formally earn the “classic” moniker (the Louisiana State Fair Classic in Shreveport, and the then-dubbed Turkey Day Classic between Johnson C. Smith and Livingstone College).

Since then, dozens of HBCU football “classics” have come and gone, moved location and changed format. Some games involve the same two rivals each year (such as the Bayou Classic), while others feature a single particular host school welcoming a rotation of opponents (like, for example, the now-defunct but long-running Orange Blossom Classic hosted by Florida A&M). Still other classics — such as the current Celebration Bowl between the SWAC and MEAC titleists — serve as a “championship” game of sorts.

All along, the various contests have ebbed and flowed, sometimes even serving as social and cultural landmarks. The 0-0 scrum between Langston and Wiley in the inaugural State Fair Classic in 1925, for example, served as the first HBCU game held during the Texas State Fair at Fair Park Stadium. And, stated The Chicago Defender, “Those who were fortunate to witness the clash will remember it for some time to come …”

By the 1940s, HBCU classics had blossomed into multi-faceted extravaganzas. Defender columnist Fay Young reported in 1945 that the 22nd Turkey Day Classic (a different event than the aforementioned 1927 game) between Tuskegee and Alabama State in Montgomery’s Cramton Bowl included a “[m]ost colorful … gala program put on during intermission.”

The Tuskegee band and cadet corps “put on an impressive drill,” while the Alabama State band, as “twice its prewar size, also paraded between the halves.” In addition, local alumni selected a “Miss Birmingham,” “Miss Montgo-mery” and “Miss Mobile.”

By the end of the 20th century and with the Bayou Classic at the forefront, many classics had evolved into juggernauts, garnering national TV deals, corporate sponsorships and heightened ticket sales. In 1997, for example, the eighth annual Southern Heritage Classic in Memphis pitting Tennessee State against Jackson State drew more than 50,000 attendees and reportedly pumped more than $6 million into the local economy.

But as the 21st century dawned, many HBCU football classics – both newer ones and long- established rivalries – ran into trouble. In 2007, the 15-year-old Gateway Football Classic in St. Louis – crippled by stagnant ticket sales and dwindled corporate sponsorships that threatened the game’s scholarship funding – got creative to boost revenue, putting forward possible solutions like involving the NBA and local high-school basketball, and working with other non-profits to hold a picnic banquet downtown.

In Philadelphia, local entrepreneur La-Van Hawkins attempted to get an HBCU classic – dubbed the Philadelphia Black College Football – off the ground in that city in 1994. Hawkins patterned his vision after established showdowns like the Atlanta Football Classic and the cream-of-the-crop Bayou Classic.

“The idea is to have it just like the Bayou Classic,” Hawkins told The Philadelphia Inquirer, “where they drew 75,000 people this year. I want to allow Philadelphia to host a different and unique event because Philadelphia is different and unique.”

The fact that Hawkins’ pipe dream crashed and burned – despite drawing inspiration from the Bayou Classic – reflects the fickle nature and tenuous existence of many HBCU classics. In an often-unforgiving climate rooted in economic urgency and frustratingly fluctuating popularity, it takes dedication, savvy, boundless energy – and, of course, some luck – to achieve the success the Bayou Classic has since its near-demise a decade ago.

Those involved with the Bayou Classic proudly point to that success as proof that Black college football games can not only survive, but thrive – and, in so doing, bringing financial windfalls to communities, colleges and universities, and their students.

“Because of the amount of attention brought [by] classics to not only football but, more importantly, academics,” stated Grambling’s Bryant, “it’s not just a game. It’s an educational experience. It’s so important for our culture. For us, it’s [about] reconnecting…Students can be recognized by 65,000 on national TV.”

And, said NOCCI’s Belletto, there’s hopefully more to come.

“We’re celebrating 45 years in New Orleans,” she said, “and most importantly, turning it into scholarships for our young people. We want to go up to 70,000 [in attendance] in the Superdome and to hold our position as No. 1.”

This article originally published in the February 5, 2018 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.

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