What defines a classic?
Is it about historical significance or economic impact?
There is no question that 2011 has shaped up to be another classic football season for Historically Black College and University teams. Then again, what year isn’t?
What once were seasons dotted with must-see matchups of historical significance (Tuskegee University vs. Morehouse College in the Tuskegee-Morehouse Classic), or between powerhouse programs (Grambling State vs. Southern University in the Bayou Classic) or longtime rivals (Bethune-Cookman vs. Florida A&M in the Florida Classic), are now saturated with games that exist to add to diminution of the meaning of the word “classic.”
The calendar is laden with them: This season, 41 classics are on the schedule.
With just so many football-playing HBCUs available, some teams are proving to be more classic-worthy than others. Albany State, Benedict College, Grambling, Jackson State, Southern, Bethune-Cookman, Morehouse, Howard University, Tuskegee and FAMU all play in three classics each.
There are repeat classic destinations as well with Orlando, Birmingham, Ala., Columbus, Ga., Jackson, Ms., Shreveport, La., Norfolk, Va., and Columbia, S.C., all hosting two classics each.
Is this too much? So far, the market can bear it.
“There are a lot of them, but I don’t think it dilutes the importance of them,” Lonza Hardy, athletic director at Arkansas-Pine Bluff. “There are a lot of bowl games played each year and people still attend those games. I think the established classics will always get a lot of fans.
And those fans spend money — perhaps a motivator for some of the classics — and boost local economies significantly. The Bayou Classic brings $35 million and 200,000 visitors to New Orleans each year on a traditionally slow holiday weekend. That's significant when you look at the $135 million the city gets from the Sugar Bowl, played traditionally around New Year’s Day.
“That’s because [the Bayou Classic] has magnetic appeal to not only the alumni of Southern and Grambling, but all HBCUs in New Orleans and all football-loving fans down there,’ Marino Casem, former Southern athletic director and head football coach, said. It rivals the Sugar Bowl.
“For a lot of people there’s nothing bigger than the Bayou Classic. Maybe Carnival in Rio de Janeiro is like it. It’s a festival in the Dome. Everybody from everywhere comes back for a celebration. There’s what’s going on on the field, but also what’s going on in the stands and the tailgaters in the parking lots. It is huge and other classics who have been around a while have similar stories.”
That may well be the key — longevity, as well as strong community involvement. The Indiana Black Expo is critical to the success of Indianapolis’ Circle Circle City Classic. The game increases the city’s coffers by $40 million and the organization benefits from monies that go to its scholarships fund.
Additionally, 100 Black Men of Atlanta funds its Project Success initiative through the Atlanta Classic, with the city pulling in $26 million and 130,000 spectators. The Florida Classic, played in Orlando’s Citrus Bowl since 1997, brings in $30 million and 175,000 fans.
“A game like this huge not only economically, but culturally,” Steve Hogan Florida Citrus Sports Executive director and CEO of the Florida Classic. “It has been a success story how it has flourished since moving here in 1997. It shows what it means to the residents of central Florida and the fans. The $30 million it brings in on many levels, but it means something for us to have the most significant classic in the nation played here.”
Orlando is a natural destination. Location and significance are strong considerations when choosing to play these games. For Morehouse, one given to its schedule is playing Tuskegee in Columbus, Ga., in one of the nation’s oldest classics — one that came into being when blacks weren’t allowed to attend the Georgia-Auburn game that was the played in the city. The game’s history makes that a must on the Tigers’ schedule. But the school also played in Washington, D.C., this year against Howard in the Nation’s Football Classic at RFK Stadium — the first on a three-year contract.
“Another part of it is giving my student athletes a difference experience, a different perspective,” Andre Patillo, Morehouse athletic director, said. “Gives them a chance to play in a larger venue, one they would probably never play in unless they go on to the next level. And you have the people behind the game that provide accommodations for the team and give them the experience of big-time football.
“These things are additional positive experiences that they will cherish for being at Morehouse. It’s something they will remember for the rest of their lives. It is something we consider when we decide on these classics.”
Making the right choice is something all ADs deal with when signing on to these games. The games come and go and you want to make sure it is worth the effort to play in a well-organized game from a team and fan experience.
“The cream will rise to the top,” Casem said. "If you get some promoter, who is trying to cash in on it for the financial benefit, [and he or she] comes up with some fly-by-night promotion, it likely won’t pay off for them. I think the classics that have paid their dues, have the right competition, the right promotion and the right preparation and all the things that go to make the ball game a success; they’ll rise to the top. They always do.”