For many HBCU athletic departments, the annual football classics keep their sports programs afloat.
Southern University Athletic Director Greg LaFleur was smiling long before his Jaguars defeated rival Grambling State University in the State Farm Bayou Classic on Thanksgiving weekend.
It wasn't the prospect of winning the game that had him giddy. It was the financial windfall his athletic department was about to get out of the game.
"It's a huge asset to our department," LaFleur says. "For Division I-AA schools like us, it is the biggest game you have. There's no other way you can generate that kind of revenue."
With their huge corporate sponsors, big profits and wide visibility, the classics are the financial lynchpin for many HBCU athletic departments.
Baton Rouge, La.-based Southern, which has a $7 million budget for its 18-sport athletic department, is a prime example. Student fees and ticket revenues account for about two-thirds of the university's athletic income. The rest comes from one game, the Bayou Classic.
"That game is the reason we can support our other sports," LaFleur says.
And it's not just the classics that are bringing in big bucks, In November and December, smaller schools, including HBCUs, often travel to face the nation's basketball powerhouses in what are called guarantee games. It's a guaranteed payday for the small school, but it usually comes with a guaranteed beating on the court The first few weeks of the college football season also generally feature some eyebrow-raising matchups, as top-ranked teams tune up and tee off on overmatched competition. Florida A&M University's football team, for example, was dismantled 51-10 by the University of Miami Hurricanes earlier this season.
While a 40-point drubbing may be embarrassing for the small schools, the six-figure payday can ease the hurt. And even with the loss, national exposure is good for recruiting. But the guarantee games in basketball and football are few and fer between for small programs. The classics, meanwhile, are played every year, usually in large cities and against traditional
rivals. Those games bring in the kind of money that can keep an HBCU's athletic department afloat.
The Money Game
Like most other collegiate athletic programs, HBCU athletic departments struggle to finish in the black financially each year. Aside from some perennial college football powerhouses like the University of Florida, the University of Georgia, The Ohio State University and the University of Tennessee, most athletic departments barely break even each year. The margin for error is almost always narrow, especially at small schools. And because a home game may draw 20,000 people or less, it's often a wise move to trade it for a classic date, which comes with guaranteed money and the chance to play in front of 70,000 fens or more.
"That's the pressure we're under as athletic directors," says Troy Mathieu, who holds the position at Grambling. "Keeping the revenue streams not only sustaining what we have, but also growing our departments."
Among the nation's oldest classics is the annual Morehouse-'Skegee Classic in Columbus, Ga. between Morehouse College and Tuskegee University. The game, which has been played every year since 1902, has been based in Columbus for the past 71 years. But while that game may be among the oldest, another Black college classic has emerged as the best known.
It was Grambling's legendary sports information director, the late Collie Nicholson, who came up with the idea to have Grambling play its in-state rival, Southern, each year on neutral ground. That game, the Bayou Classic, is played every Thanksgiving weekend in New Orleans and broadcast to a nationwide audience, bringing the Black college football experience, with its intense rivalries and high-stepping bands, into mainstream America.
Among the more successful annual events is the Southern Heritage Classic between Tennessee State University and its rival, Jackson State University. …
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